Reviewed by Dave Cunningham, 23rd November, 2008
Venue: Place Apartment Hotel, Manchester
Shift working and long -distance travel can destabilise sleep patterns. One of the challenges facing the audience in Black Tonic is working out the extent to which the actions of the characters are affected by their disrupted sleep. Our assessment is affected by the fact that the play is presented in such a way that we too experience the symptoms.
The jobs of the characters make it appropriate to stage Black Tonic not in a theatre but in the rooms and corridors of the Place Hotel. Lena (Magdalena Tuka) is a chambermaid working shifts in the hotel. Here she encounters Anna ( Katherine Maxwell-Cook) whom she blames for the loss of her lover. Lena fears that Anna is going to exert her malign influence over long distance traveller Steve ( Gareth Nicholls) and his partner Helen (Laura Ellison). Anna , insomniac and self-harming, clearly feels guilty about something and we have to work out her true motives.
The play requires an unusual level of audience participation ranging from the usual one of observing and interpreting to more direct involvement of conversing and interacting with the characters. At times this involvement is secured in a natural manner.
From our hotel room we overhear Lena convey her suspicions to her supervisor Marie (Lou Platt). After interrupting an argument we are taken to one side by Helen or Steve to hear their concerns or confessions. Other cues for participation, however, are more artificial. A telephone call urges us from room to corridor or we are just directed into a darkened room. It is a shame that these directions could not be more discrete (the telephone call could have been intended for another room but received by us in error) so as to maintain the illusion of spontaneous involvement. This occasional disjointed approach does, however, help us feel we are experiencing the type of confusion caused by destabilised sleep patterns.
Director Katie Day lists theatre and hotels as her major passions . Yet the influences on Black Tonic seem cinematic rather than theatrical with the techniques of David Lynch being particularly apparent. The environment in which site-specific events take place can create problems as well as generate benefits. Day not only avoids problems but uses the atmosphere of the hotel to exploit the feeling you get in such locations that something weird might be going on in the next room; and by extension that strange things may be happening beneath the conventional surface of society as a whole.
Apart from Magdalena Tuka, who is given the chance to show different aspects of Lena,the actors are not really required to create characters. Their purpose is more to tell the story and convey the atmosphere of a waking dream – which they do very well. The story, by Clare Duffy, is not entirely original – one recalls similar storylines in a tale by Stephen King and a film by David Fincher. Nevertheless the story is told in a very imaginative way and leads to a satisfying conclusion.
Black Tonic might be a triumph of style over substance but it is very imaginative and a lot of fun.
Black Tonic, The Place Hotel, Manchester
Reviewed by Lynne Walker
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
In Black Tonic, devised by the Birmingham-based company The Other Way Works, an audience of two couples play detectives piecing together a dramatic jigsaw acted out in the lobby, corridors and bedrooms of a hotel. Instructions are issued by phone or shakily typed notes in Clare Duffy’s ingenious web of fantasy mingled with reality, directed by Katie Day and nimbly executed by a small cast.
After checking in to Manchester’s Place Hotel we’re offered a Black Tonic to sip while the rooms are prepared. At one table, two guests innocently swap stories while, a little nearer, a married couple called Steve and Helen fool fondly around. My fellow traveller and I share the lift with them – Steve now moody and apparently jet-lagged – on the way to our penthouse apartment. Before we reach our destination, Room 503, Helen runs forward to assist a young lady who is lying apparently injured on the ground. Assured there’s nothing we can do, we’re told to close our door behind us.
Video sequences flash across the television monitor, then room service is temporarily interrupted as a chambermaid Lena (Magdalena Tuka) rushes to our bathroom to throw up. She’s clearly troubled by what she has seen elsewhere. Marie (Louise Platt), squirting air freshener, begs us to turn a blind eye, bribing us with extra pillow chocolates.
Outside the door, a full-scale row is erupting. My co-detective and I have our ears bent separately by Helen and Steve. It’s hard knowing how to respond to a young woman pouring out her heart about the apparent faithlessness of her husband and begging for advice. After all, I saw the incriminating evidence slipped into her handbag downstairs. How interactive should we be? Should we strong-arm the maid who has stolen a laptop? The blind man in the darkened room clearly expects a vocal response. He has a tick, he says, “but no light to reset my tock”. This, it turns out, is a clue.
Thrust into a room with stuff strewn on the floor, we find clues as to the identity of Anna, who specialises in “professional relationship restoration”. A jet-lag pack – containing melatonin tablets, an eye mask and a blue lightbox – presents another twist in this mystery about anonymity and intimacy, the effects of light and sleep deprivation, and a blind date between the nightly life of a hotel and the endless possibilities of dramatic fiction.
3 stars, Sprint festival, London
Anna has an unusual job: she runs an organisation specialising in “professional relationship restoration”. If you want to get your ex-partner back, she may be able to help. We first meet her in the bar of a London hotel. She is downing a cocktail called a Black Tonic and observing a married couple, Helen and Steve. We watch her watching, and are plunged into an evocative thriller that takes place in the public spaces, corridors and bedrooms of the hotel.
Commissioned by Camden People’s Theatre for the Sprint festival, Black Tonic is a site-responsive performance produced by the Birmingham-based The Other Way Works. It is designed to be played in hotels for an audience of two at a time. This is quite an early version of a show that I think could eventually be a cracker; it is already technically adept, and plays cleverly with that particularly odd tension between anonymity and intimacy that is part of any hotel environment. One of the fascinating things is the way the real guests in the hotel seem entirely oblivious to the impostors around them, raising the idea that in such circumstances we are all giving some kind of performance.
The show also melds the public and private faces of the hotel, particularly the way chamber maids are both present and invisible. The balance of video to live action isn’t quite right, and the piece needs more emotional texture, but this is work with real potential.
Extract of performance and interview with Director Katie Day, November 2008
TV clip from Channel M’s Entertainment News
Review – Black Tonic
**** 4 Stars
Reviewed by Tom Hackett, May 2009
Mercure Holland House Hotel, Bristol (Fri 1-Mon 4 May)
Strange things were happening at Redcliffe’s Holland House Hotel last weekend, as Birmingham-based theatre group The Other Way Works led audience members through the rooms and corridors to unravel a psychological mystery. The experience is less literal and more impressionistic than one might expect from a mystery story, more David Lynch than Agatha Christie. Led round in pairs, we see one corridor scene twice, breaking the narrative flow but also leading us to question our first reading of the scene; the rooms’ TV equipment is used to show short films that draw us into a key character’s psyche; and at one point all four audience members are invited to sit down and play ‘Snap’ with a blind man, for no apparent reason other than to mess with our heads. The possibilities of the setting are fully explored and it’s all executed with impressive precision, whilst the performances are so naturalistic that it is genuinely difficult to tell the actors from the ordinary guests in the hotel. And just when you think the ambiguity and surreality are going to get a bit much, everything ties up into a satisfyingly elegant conclusion. Just the kind of high-quality experiment that can make Mayfest such a refreshing tonic.
Preview, 2 May 2009
Make sure you see Black Tonic, The Other Way Works’ behind-the-scenes thriller in the Mercure Holland House Hotel.
Preview, 15 November 2008
Produced by Birmingham company The Other Way Works, this interactive performance for an audience of just four draws on a short story by Clare Duffy. It’s an intriguing detective tale about Anna, who offers a service described as “professional relationship restoration” that takes place in the rooms and corridors of a hotel, and its pleasure is in the tension between that strange hotel mix of intimacy and anonymity and the way real guests are oblivious to what is happening.