THE FEATHER IN THE WEB
THE FEATHER IN THE WEB, Griffin Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, 13 October-17 November 2018. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Claire Lovering; below - Tina Bursill and Gareth Davies, below again - centre: Michelle Lim Davidson
The Lysicrates Prize-winning The Feather in the Web, by Nick Coyle teeters on the edge of so many -isms, gasps and Omigods as to stun an audience much as a spotlight stuns a rabbit, but it’s done with such clear-eyed panache and honesty it’s irresistible.
Director Ben Winspear has his cast of four leaping off the high board into a black comedy of profundity, absurdity and satirical tenderness. It won’t be for everyone (a patron beside me woke up his wrist watch every few minutes, hung his head in his hands and finally left never to return) but for those prepared to go with it, the rewards are astonishing.
Kimberly (Claire Lovering) is the antiheroine to end all antiheroines. She starts out at glower to the power of ten and then goes off the dial. The logic behind her initial fury – which involves cake and two simpering, silly women – is irrefutable. Her actions are the kind many of us would like to have the absence of politeness to carry out ourselves, but never do. It’s at once awful and awfully funny – like Villanelle’s ice-cream tipping on the smirking kid in Killing Eve.
When Kimberly says she’s going to the mall, never to return, her mother’s heartfelt response of sheer hopeful relief is hilarious. As the mother and a number of other characters, notably an improv teacher of huge enthusiasm and little talent, Tina Bursill demonstrates the depth of her range – from ditz to pathos and every emotional stop in between. It’s a total treat to have her on the Stables stage.
Meanwhile Kimberly hitches a ride to the mall while behaving like a minor character in a Wes Craven movie. The family of mum, dad and daughter (Bursill, Gareth Davies and Michelle Lim Davidson) play I Spy and sing to pass the time while their passenger mocks their vapid niceness with terrifying accuracy and no mercy. Simultaneously gasping with horror and laughing can be a health hazard.
At the mall Kimberly gets a makeover from a totes motormouth dizzy type (Gareth Davies) as he delivers a marvellous stream-of-cosmetic-consciousness monologue even while being masturbated by his otherwise unwilling client beneath his tool apron. If you see what I mean.
Somehow or other, Kimberly fetches up at a ritzy engagement party where the mother of the groom (Bursill) mistakes her for a waitress and while complying and serving champagne, Kimberly falls obsessively in love with that same groom, Miles (Davies) even though he’s as jejune as his giggling fiancee, Lily (Lim Davidson).
Kimberly’s obsession with Miles takes the action in another careering, crazy sweeping turn into darker, sadder territory. In her thinking and behaviour Kimberly’s sanity and madness run on parallel lines. Sophie Fletcher’s set design (lighting, Trent Suidgeest) heighten those factors as backdrops are steadily stripped away and reality is always just out of reach and not quite in focus. Composer/sound designer Steve Toulmin provides a dynamic counterpoint to the emotional peaks and troughs.
Video designer Mic Gruchy drops another layer of meaning on the actors and the stage – the technical team takes us inside Kimberly’s head. This is wildly, wonderfully demonstrated when she is threatened with a migraine and Tina Bursill arrives to torment her as the aura that tells a sufferer the blinding pain is on the way. It’s likely that few – if any – actors have ever portrayed a migraine aura before and Bursill breaks new ground with vocal enhancement and a Dr Who alien look.
You might have worked out by now that The Feather in the Web is likely to be a unique experience for most. Not since Joe Orton first scandalised reluctantly guffawing audiences has a playwright so boldly and successfully mixed nice and naughty, outrageous and charming, tender and vicious and a whole lot more besides.
Even as she is being more vile than a villain, it’s impossible not to see where Kimberly is coming from and to empathise – secretly, perhaps, but whatever, Lovering is brilliant. The same goes for the obnoxiously nice Miles and the professionally silly Lily – Davies is oddly disturbing and Lim Davidson’s bewildered airhead is heartbreaking. The most unnerving thing, however, is how normal it begins to seem as time goes on: that’s high anxiety indeed.