Printable CopyS-27 BY SARAH GROCHALA
The Breakout at The Mill
Until 16 Feb 2020

Review by John Wells

Six black-clad, bug-eyed, severe guards burst into the foyer, shouting at the unsuspecting audience. Confused and slightly apprehensive, we do as we are told: we line up, show our hands, and surrender. We are forced into a line and march outside. One briefly unco-operative prisoner soon complies with the menacing demands (and the actors impressively stay in character as the recalcitrant theatre-goer tries to rebel). Of course this is make-believe, but we are all on edge and disconcerted, hearts beating just a bit faster.

Sit down. Name? (Click.) You go out that door. Sit down. Name? (Click.) You go out that door.

We are in a darkened room in a place of violence that feels like part concentration camp, part abattoir. The guards throw a beaten man on the ground. A stone-faced photographer takes pictures on a film camera. Sitting in front of her are muddied, dishevelled, desperate people, who know death awaits them out that door. They try to plead, fight, or bargain their way out, but May, the impassive photographer, does not relent.

Director Teresa Izzard has created a palpably tense and intimidating atmosphere, perfectly suiting Sarah Gronchala’s sparse prose. “S-27” is both a reminder and a warning of the dangers of totalitarianism, and deftly, intelligently reveals the fear, brutality and human degradation this revolution has wrought. The writing is taut and unadorned, and Izzard’s precise, muscular direction creates almost excruciating discomfort. There is a wonderful sense of fearful mystery and dystopian dread.

Izzard adds stylised movement and is assisted by an unnerving score (Rachael Dease) and sound design (John Congear), as well as a flashing, arresting lighting design (Andrew Portwine and Samuel Ireland).

The performances are full of edgy intensity, but the subtlety and complexity of the acting gives real emotional weight. The action revolves around May, the photographer, and her pas-des-deux with other characters. As May, Gabriella Munro is assured, sensitive and subtle. Her ability to reveal flashes of emotion beneath a hardened carapace is impressive; this is a wonderful, skilful portrayal. There are compelling and heart-rending scenes with a mother (Caitlyn Griffiths) and baby, and May’s cousin (Sally Clune). Most successful is the jarring, fizzing conflict with the apprentice photographer June (a mockingly malevolent Lauren Beeton); the shifting, spinning changes of power between May and June are beautiful theatrical moments. The main players are supported by an energetic, well-drilled and committed ensemble.

Grochala’s text is over-long and over-states its message, and the tightness of the first half sags later in the play. The dance/movement sequences would benefit from some trimming. Those minor quibbles aside, this is a taut, relentless and powerful production from a very accomplished company.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)