Saturday, June 15

Transistor – Hope Street Theatre

Dark Horse Theatre Chiang Mai’s Transistor is an exploration of gender and sexuality and its effects on family life. Written and directed by Kelly Holliday this is a very funny and dramatic piece of theatre which takes an issue which is currently causing a lot of controversy and arguments, particularly online, and makes it something which can be talked about albeit without minimising the strength of emotions people feel about it.

The set is overwhelmed with busyness, with clutter and cardboard boxes littering most of the stage. The chaos contrasts well with a peaceful looking bench on a patch of grass. Empty picture frames hang over the stage and the boxes are labelled to illustrate that their contents are the result of an ongoing clear out.

The play opens with Vivian (Judy Mandel) coming on and angrily tuning an old-fashioned radio before beginning to throw various items into the different boxes. Home movies are projected onto the back of the stage showing a couple and their two daughters celebrating a birthday. The birthday girl receives a fashion doll as a present and reacts with disdain and disinterest. As someone who didn’t appreciate Barbie or any of her friends as a child, I can appreciate the apathetic sentiment, and it seems particularly timely to show this scene as a very pink film is currently showing in cinemas.

As the home movie fades out and Vivian’s tidying becomes increasingly aggressive, Maggie (Melinda Phillips) bursts onto the stage, cheerily cleaning as Vivian plays messages left on the answerphone. It quickly becomes clear from the urgent messages left by doctors and colleagues that Vivian is seriously ill and her and Maggie’s daughter, Amanda (Anna Zyla) is coming to visit for what are thought to be Vivian’s final days.

Unfortunately, Vivian has made it clear that her and Maggie’s transgender son, Ryan (Emma Carroll) is not welcome to visit as Vivian is completely unable to accept his transition. However, in a desperate attempt to fix things before it is literally too late, Maggie has messaged Ryan, pretending to be Vivian, reaching out and inviting him to visit. When Amanda finds out about this she goes into a blind panic as she knows that Vivian’s reaction is going to be catastrophic, but Ryan is already on his way.

There is some very clever writing throughout the play. Medication being referred to as “magic beans” by Maggie creates a fairy tale feeling which reflects her sunny disposition and frantic efforts to keep the peace. Lots of deadpan dialogue creates a sense of a very tight-knit and natural family atmosphere. That this continues after Ryan’s arrival keeps the feeling that family is family even when estrangement is present. References to jigsaw pieces and the empty picture frames hanging over the stage enhance the feeling of distance and how things can be missing even if the picture has been patched up to show otherwise.

The high level of tension throughout the play does an excellent job of creating the world in miniature. Mandel’s performance is passionately angry and is a fantastic representation of the real-life anger that is almost constantly present in today’s society. There are some very dark turns in the play, and Holliday’s writing does a brilliant job of aligning this black humour which prevents the play feeling preachy. Carroll’s emotional reactions to Vivian’s constant dead-naming of Ryan is very good and creates a high level of poignancy. Carroll’s performance is excellent, with the quiet and self-assured portrayal giving Ryan’s character strength and a definite confidence that contrasts him with the rest of his family whose violently emotional reactions to situations expose their insecurities and fears. Carroll also does a good job of showing a core of vulnerability within the confident exterior, which shows in a very short time the emotional journey Ryan has been on during his transition.  

The play is set in America with Amanda and her husband, Barney (Warrie Leitch) visiting from Britain, though it isn’t always clear if the piece is meant to be contemporary or set in a near future leaning slightly closer to dystopia. When Barney uses one of his EpiPens after a mix up with cereal, Amanda is upset and refers to them being very expensive, but in the UK, these would cost the standard prescription charge and it would be very unlikely the couple who have just arrived for their visit would be subject to American medical charges. Of course, this may have been a comment on the future possible privatisation of the NHS where this would likely be a situation more aligned with the USA.

There are several flashback scenes showing key points in Young Vivian’s (Kim Ogletree) and Young Maggie’s (Aliya Allibhai) relationship. It is very difficult to have two actors playing one role at different ages on stage. The suspension of disbelief that can be achieved in film and television does not translate as well to stage as a rule, and often it is better to have one actor playing both ages. For this show, Holliday has opted to have Mandel watch the scenes which creates the illusion of her remembering these scenes in her mind. The pairs of actors have also clearly worked particularly hard on matching their body language and characterisation, with Phillips and Allibhai particularly mirroring each other’s portrayals very well.

The passage of time and pain that the characters are feeling is shown to the audience through periods of synchronised movement. This makes it clear that all of them are willing to fight for their own point of view and this culminates in some heartbreaking scenes where the conflicts within the family come to a head.

The play ends with a twist which does become clear during the play’s later scenes and, perhaps, doesn’t need explaining to the extent that it is. As the show has already done such a good job of showing what the twist is and the future ramifications on the family are clear, the amount of time dedicated to clarifying and exploring this further feels slightly excessive and, saps the pace of the play somewhat. There is massive potential for this ending to be truly explosive, if the dialogue in the final scenes was tightened up, perhaps with the flashback actors being used to create a quick-paced and snappy interaction with the present-day actors. Unfortunately, as it stands, the final scene tends to distract too much from the fantastic exploration of the themes the play manages up until that point.

Transistor is an impressive play which does a wonderful job of exploring vitriol while maintaining laugh out loud moments throughout the performance. It deals with some big themes very well and the writing is very strong and performed by a brilliant cast. There are some areas where the piece could be tightened up and made even better than it already is, but this is a great show and definitely worth seeing.

Transistor is being performed at the Hope Street Theatre until 29th July 2023. Tickets are available here

Reviewer: Donna M Day

Reviewed: 25th July 2022

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.