By Caitlin Williams
There is a certain magic to being in an old night club, ushered up four flights of stairs and seated in a small space that looks like it was once a dance floor. You’re with an audience that’s just as expectant as you — what will blossom in this little room? There’s an importance to the space, as Simple Souls will tell you. This is a space for conflict, and introspection — but it must not be damaged.
Simple Souls is an 80-minute exercise in absurdity and, as it has been marketed, ‘magical realism.’ Writer and Director Paul Gilchrist has taken on the mammoth task of addressing the increasingly divisive, polemicised discourse that takes place both online and in our everyday world. Unfortunately, this work wasn’t quite able to find the kernel of ‘simplicity’ amongst all the noise.
Marguerite (Madeleine Withington), a creative, has posted an ad on a telegraph pole, and immediately enlists all who show up in response. They’re creating a show, or a series of skits, which seek to ‘cut to the heart’ of our present ills. As these skits begin, taking on a gameshow style, you’d be forgive for getting a little confused as to exactly what message is at the core of this work. The first twenty to thirty minutes had me weary that my generation (Gen Z) and the millennials above me were about to get lambasted as snowflake-keyboard-social-justice warriors who think signing online petitions counts as action. And hey, look, my generation’s not perfect — I’ll give you that. But these are tried and tested stereotypes, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed.
Thankfully, however, the show introduces a little introspection and self-reflexivity through the pointed comments of the space’s custodian, Terri (Lisa Hanssens). And therein lay the issue — after that point, the reflexivity and meta-theatricality of the play didn’t find an end point. I felt like the play kept turning in on itself again and again until the threads I was holding onto were gone. The conclusion — that the only divisions we really put between ourselves are imaginary — didn’t feel hard-won. It felt slightly disingenuous and non-sequitur. Unfortunately, the dialogue often followed a similar path.
There were some admirable performances, to be sure. Madeleine Withington, as Marguerite, played her character with an honesty which lent force to otherwise stilted lines. Also a standout was Julia Christensen, whose intensity and charm as Trudy was followed through with undercurrents of uncertainty, rounding out the character. The space’s warden, and the voice of reason to Marguerite’s anger, found a steady hand in Lisa Hanssens, who brought a comedic quirkiness.
The space was entirely bare save props brought on by Withington, and lighting served mostly to indicate transitions and the passage of time. Sound by Ash Walker served to create a more complex atmosphere of self-doubt and sobriety when needed, with pulsing, synthetic sounds.
The final few conceit(s) of the play, revealed at the end (which I won’t spoil for you), ultimately lacked punch. Instead, they felt largely contrived and unsurprising. This is really a play about Marguerite’s attempts to gain clarity in a noisy, confusing world. Marguerite might have found simplicity, but I don’t think the audience did. Without a clear starting point, and with too many voices onstage (this is a cast of seven) that weren’t properly developed, the twists and turns didn’t lead us where Gilchrist really wanted this to go. There are moments of piercing social commentary and satire, but these were few. I would love to see a reworked production, perhaps shorter and with fewer characters, and a clearer through-line.
Simple Souls plays at Fringe HQ until the 30th November.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.