The stage is suitably spooky with the heavy haze of dry ice and rumbling soundtrack, swallowed up into the shadowy rafters of the erstwhile St Mary’s Church space, now the Colchester Arts Centre, the host venue of writer/director Noah Alfred Pantano’s 2023 Fringe entry. The air is thick with disquiet and threat of menace even before the performers take their places, as if the bar where all the action will play out is already claimed by a particular virulence. A long, painful night of soul searching and bared emotion awaits the quintet of characters locked in the venue with an unspeakable, unfathomable beast hell-bent on damage and chaos.

Suggesting a Beckett-like existential crisis, Pantano intriguingly grounds his material in a distinctly queer register, the emergencies arising from specific pressures and reflections from within the gay community. The bedevilling creature is a manifestation of the characters’ collective sense of guilt, personal and professional failings, their panic and fear of the wolves outside their door, a hostile world that means to inflict harm. It becomes suddenly apparent in two respects that in fact this is a period piece, most likely late-80’s as AIDS was scourging through the gay population, devastating a generation and where there was a hesitation and suspicion in calling upon the police in an urgent situation as they were much more likely to raid a gay establishment than assist the staff and patrons of a gay bar. Discrimination is flagrant and wholly acceptable. This group operates out of a degree of ever-present fear. No wonder they find themselves besieged. Owen (Joe Eason), the prickly bar manager, is on knife’s edge, withholding dire information. Anastasia (A.J. Colley) is taking desolate inventory of a mean existence, mediocre drag queen in a series of dive locations. Giles (Eden Camara), clumsy, cute, a plaything of youth, tries his best to keep upbeat in the face of an uncertain future. Couple Warren & Hugh (Jake Halimi and Aaron Burke), the sole steady customers, haunt the edges. There is more than enough free-floating anxiety on display to create towering monsters.

As the action tightens and the threat grows nearer, the vast space partially defeats the suspense. A much more compressed, intimate area (say, a studio space) would contain the growing hysteria more effectively. It felt at times as if the frenzy was being stoked to higher & higher pitch just to fit the scale, sacrificing nuance and dimension. Modulation is lost-a viewer may long for some quieter moments amongst the clamour. Pantano (maybe rightfully so) doesn’t quite trust the space to hold more understated behaviour and reaction. The few instances of more reserved conversation (a relaxed chat between Anastasia and Giles, some piercing exchanges between a distraught Owen and cradling Anastasia) are among the most memorable of the evening. 

When performed earlier this year at Lakeside Theatre (on the University of Essex campus), the length of the performance was, according to press notes, close to two hours. Here, Pantano has excised quite a lot of material to fit an hour’s slot. The cast blew through the text on Saturday night in just 50 minutes time, not nearly enough time to properly explore the full extent of Pantano’s many provocative themes. Colley comes closest to full inhabitation as Anastasia, complex and sympathetically conflicted, a figure of strength and compassion as the play progresses. Camara has a fresh-faced appeal as Giles and Eason compels as a dark powder keg of eruptive unease. Warren & Hugh suffer most from the concision, unable to contribute too much narratively. Perhaps the expanded version gave more backstory and detail to the cast, which would be most welcome. A viewer wants to know more.

Given its limited budget, there are some very impressive sound & lighting design elements, effective in delivering jolts and creeps to the audience. A final image, one of the stillest, strongest-and most startling- moments in the piece, provides an unsettling visual, a moment of reckoning for Owen, a troubling embrace. Pantano’s heart, empathy & understanding for these damaged souls is unimpeachable.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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