Thursday, 27 June 2019

Review: The Basement Tapes (Zanetti Productions)

Tuesday 25th June 2019
HOME, Manchester (Incoming Festival)

I was at HOME Manchester again this week to see The Basement Tapes, one of the productions on this year’s Incoming Festival programme. I’ll be reviewing the show for North Manchester FM next week, but in the meantime here’s the full version of my review…

Now in its sixth year, the Incoming Festival takes place in London, Manchester and Bristol, and showcases the work of emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond. The Basement Tapes is a piece by New Zealand’s Zanetti Productions. It was performed in Manchester on 25th June, before moving on to London on 27th June and Bristol on 29th June, as part of a UK tour.

The Basement Tapes is a one-act play, performed by Stella Reid and directed by Jane Yonge, which takes place entirely in the eponymous basement. A young woman is faced with the task of clearing out the cellar after the death of her grandmother. As she sifts through old clothes and cheesy records, she uncovers an old tape recorder… and then a tape recorded by her grandmother. She’s shocked to hear her relative’s voice again, but then sits down to listen to the tape. A story begins to emerge that is equal parts mysterious and unsettling.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Basement Tapes – it’s a skilful, well-crafted and expertly performed piece of theatre, with surprises – and even shocks – that I did not see coming. Billed as a ‘mystery’, this play is much more than that – but it would be unfair to give too much away about the story! Suffice to say the story has a few curveballs that I didn’t expect, and a creepiness that went beyond what I was anticipated. (If you’ve read stuff on my blog before, it should go without saying that ‘creepiness’ is a very good thing in my book!)

It is rare to see horror tropes tackled successfully on stage – it’s really not an easy genre to perform live, and in such intimate surroundings as Theatre 2 at HOME, but Zanetti Productions are more than up to the task. The Basement Tapes hits all the right notes to create a thrilling and disturbing tale, which left me feeling genuinely unnerved by the end. The trajectory of the creepiness is just right; the tension is built subtlety and competently. So competently, in fact, that inanimate objects on stage begin to feel imbued with a sense of menace.

The play opens on a deceptively simple set, designed by Oliver Morse – a pile of cardboard boxes to the back, with a few apparently inconsequential objects scattered around in front. However, the work to which this set is put is quite remarkable. Reid moves, empties, fills and throws away the boxes, which take up different places on the stage, ready for later interactions. While Reid appears to treat the boxes in a rather cavalier fashion, the underlying precision of her performance is revealed by the lighting, which picks out objects on the stage at various points. Everything we’re seeing is a deliberate part of the storytelling, moving us inexorably towards the play’s climactic denouement.

The sound design (by Thomas Lambert) and lighting are excellent throughout. While The Basement Tapes is not afraid to ‘go big’ on some effects (bright and colourful lighting, blaring music), it also makes skilful use of darkness and silence – some of the more striking moments come when there was no light, or no sound – as well moments of warmth and quietness. It would be tempting in a story of this sort (which the blurb describes as ‘Twin Peaks meets Serial’) to try and create cinematic techniques; however, The Basement Tapes is all theatre. This is not a piece that feels like a short film enacted live, but rather a production that truly belongs on the stage, created by a company that knows how to use the theatre space (with its opportunities for lighting and sound) to its full potential.

But what really impressed me – and what I enjoyed the most – is the storytelling. A single act is a short space to present a fully developed tale, but The Basement Tapes manages it. The script gives just enough information to conjure a clear backstory, weaving a convincing backdrop to the main ‘mystery’, which is revealed through the atmospheric narration provided by the tapes found in the cellar. Tiny fragments of backstory are scattered throughout, from an empty sherry bottle to a camel-coloured coat. Again, there is a deceptive simplicity to this – without the careful and deliberate contextualizing, it would be difficult to imagine an audience sitting quietly, watching a woman on stage listening to a tape. However, by the time the granddaughter hits the ‘play’ button, we’re just as intrigued as she is.

While the mystery and horror elements are, perhaps, the most striking aspects, the use of humour is also very well-done. I particularly enjoyed some of the nods to… erm… slightly older members of the audience, as the central character negotiated such archaic technology as tape recorders and landline phones.

Reid gives a stunning performance as the granddaughter. She is endearing and engaging throughout, ensuring that the audience feels that we know (and like) the young woman she’s playing. Reid begins the performance with a boisterous dance routine, and variously moves between brash comic turns, sentimental reminiscences, manic curiosity and mounting anxiety as the story on the tape begins to unfold. On occasion, these moves happen quickly: there’s a brilliant bit with a cookbook that captures an abrupt – but completely believable – swing from affectionate mockery to tearful nostalgia, which perfectly evokes the mixed emotions of bereavement and its aftermath. Again, Reid’s captivating performance encourages a feeling of intimacy and familiarity, which is a key part of the play’s story development and resolution.

In case this rather effusive review hasn’t made it clear, The Basement Tapes is an excellent piece of theatre – highly recommended. It’s a play that really stays with you after you’ve left the theatre and undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve seen on stage this year.

The Basement Tapes was on at HOME Manchester on 25th June, as part of the Incoming Festival. The Incoming Festival takes place at HOME Manchester, New Diorama Theatre, London, and Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, on 24th-30th June 2019.

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