The Chairs is a modern classic absurdist farce conventionally performed as a two hander. An old couple, isolated on an island and nearing the end of their lives, invite a number of (invisible) guests over to hear an orator the husband has hired to relay the message he wants to tell the world.
It’s not indulgence that inspired Tell Tale Theatre to make it an ensemble piece, but a desire to involve as many of their company as possible. As such, the couple at the centre of Ionesco’s bizarre story were portrayed six times over, sometimes with all 12 actors on stage going through variations of a theme, sometimes with short one-on-one scenes that worked well.
Dressing everyone identically was a nice touch – visually this production was bright, bold, yet reassuringly old fashioned, like a saucy seaside postcard.
Making the couple as grotesque as possible – think Cabaret’s Emcee meets Aunt Sally – maximised the laughs, but tended to distract from the poignancy of the couple’s relationship; to that end, couples of varying ages might have added to the mix. Although Tell Tale does have company members of all ages, for this occasion only younger members were able to commit to the production, with a rather energetic result.
The company has previously been known for their ‘epic tragedies’, as guest director Rob Kavanagh pointed out in the programme, and have excelled tackling the likes of The Crucible and 1984. This production of The Chairs was experimental with some endearing performances, but any subtlety – assuming there was supposed to be some in the original text – was lost a bit in the overall melee.
As a venue, St George’s Hall’s small concert room worked well with John Gossage’s set (two farce-tastic rows of doors), and of course it is always lovely to have a chance to sit inside. But harsh acoustics made for a very noisy production, especially as many scenes had the entire cast shouting at once, making things hard on the ears and quite hard to follow. (Old fart alert.) Live musical accompaniment – featuring members of Tramp Attack and the Loose Moose String Band – seemed a little underused, considering the potential for it. Or again, that could have been the sound struggling to carry.
Little nuances between the six male actors were more noticeable than among the female performers, and they were certainly understated in comparison – Dan Pendleton’s increasingly drunk Old Man provided consistently good running sight gags, and Bradley Thompson’s turn at chatting up one of the invisible guests stood out. A climatic physical scene featuring the whole ensemble rushing around to arrange chairs for the guests was a pleasure.
Rowdy, unusual and fun, once again Tell Tale put its own stamp on a classic – probably irking a few purists along the way – with, as ever, some exceptional performances from a community group.