This is the third of Adam H. Wells’ plays that has been produced by the New Theatre. You could say that he has become a regular feature there and it is not hard to see why; you only need to read the five-star reviews for his production of Chasing Dragons at the Edinburgh Festival last year to realise what a clever playwright he is. I dragged my cynical, theatre-hating friend away from a Jacuzzi (seriously!) to come and see this play with me, and even he left saying it was fantastic.
The Off-White Horse is an ambitious piece. It tackles contentious issues such as autism, family feuds and extra-marital affairs; despite this it never becomes overly intense or arduous. The intertextual parallel with Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is even more intricate than it first appears; the symbol of the ‘off-white horse’ initially points to the father of the family, evoking ideas of duty and virtue. However, Carroll’s broader cultural significance also ties in with the play’s overriding themes of social progression and moral relativism. The play questions the social laws we maintain, the laws we have lost, and how these apply to specific individuals. The fact that Wells has managed to weave these ideas together so well is quite remarkable.
This domestic drama certainly offered a unique viewing experience. The actors succeeded in creating a natural, raw performance tone. The dynamic between David (Henry Blanchard) and Harriet (Kerry Stevenson) was skilfully developed, each delivered nuanced, sensitive performances. Liz Stevens’ wry depiction of Aunt Olivia was as cutting as it was attentive, and her scenes opposite Laura Kaye Thomson’s Erin created startlingly believable tension. Furthermore, Jenny Kohnhorst’s portrayal of Alison, the eldest child who suffered from Asperger Syndrome, was perfect. Her consistent, absorbing performance stole the show.
The naturalistic tone was purposefully disrupted and twisted though by several rather surreal elements. The massive jigsaw-shaped hole in the living room wall, for example, was a clever theatrical device which allowed the audience to see outside the house. It also carried symbolic meaning, hinting at the severe fractures threatening to rupture the family’s domestic sphere, and mirroring Alison’s child-like mentality. This worked with other artistically-augmented components, such as the repetitive music and greatly effective use of lighting, to represent everyday experience through Alison’s eyes. The overall tone, then, lent itself to a kind of ‘Hyper-Naturalism’ – this play sought to represent ‘real life’, but from an unfamiliar perspective. The layout of the set also highlighted the prominent features in Alison’s life –her beloved chessboard was in the centre and her drawings were plastered along the walls. Credit goes to producer Rob Greenman and the backstage team for creating this well-rounded production; the result was both intriguing and thought-provoking.
Of course, no production is perfect. Sure, the lengthy gaps between scenes became a little tedious (though this may well have been intended to add to the measured, repetitive tone), and the naturalistic mode of delivery sometimes meant that Wells’ comic quips were lost. Nevertheless, this is definitely one of the best plays I have seen at the New Theatre.