Review: ‘Potosí’

Potosí, running this week at the Burton Taylor Studio, is a thoughtful exploration of ideas about intimacy in different kinds of relationships. Set entirely within the bedroom of wayward English literature undergraduate Matthew (Tom Pease), the audience is thrown into the drama as he brings home a younger boy, James (Shrai Popat), from a nightclub. Written by Oxford student Jonathan Oakman, the play unfolds over their evening together, by turns both poignant and humorous.

Such a personal staging suited the Burton Taylor Studio perfectly, allowing the audience to engage closely with the actors rather than feeling somewhat voyeuristic, which could easily have happened in a larger space. The on-stage chemistry between Pease and Popat was convincing throughout, although Pease inhabited Matthew’s cynical, Casanova-like persona with a little more ease than Popat in James’s more naïve and idealistic character. The dialogue was well-paced and keenly observed, refreshing in its honesty and ability to evoke a genuinely casual atmosphere between the two. James’s earnest excitement about finishing school and travelling to Bolivia (hence the title) managed to convey the endearing awkwardness of a teenager trying to impress his older lover, whilst Matthew’s air of world-weary superiority (despite being only a few years older) captured the sense of someone hiding their insecurities with a false bravado. It is only as the play develops that these facades are stripped away, exploring how a sense of trust can develop between two essential strangers.

The only moment where the writing seemed a little unbelievable was following the plot twist about two-thirds of the way in. This is difficult to discuss without giving spoilers, but James’s reaction not to leave Matthew’s house at this point was at first sight bizarre. However, this was contextualised the next morning where James explained his decision to stay, so this is a minor criticism within a script that was otherwise engaging and astute. The twist, while a little predictable, allowed for a space to explore intimacy within family relationships, giving a nice balance to the more sexual and themes engaged with in the first half.

My primary criticism of the show would be the sound production, which was entirely at odds with the character of the rest of the play. Given that the diegetic music was selected so carefully, the brash music that divided the scenes seemed somewhat incongruous. While this was no doubt intentional, allowing for an interjection of the external into the discrete intimate space whose autonomy both characters were keen to preserve, it detracted from the immediacy of the writing. This was particularly noticeable given that music is something of a leitmotif throughout the script (James talks about how he only feels safe when he listens to music, that it is what makes him “tick”), drawing attention to the sounds that are present. From the track played in the auditorium at the start, I was expecting the setting to be in the late 1980s-90s rather than the 2010s, meaning that the elision from the first scene to the opening dialogue was a little disjointed. The music written into the script, however, was sensitively used, providing a suitable complement to the tender tone of the dialogue.

Potosí is an extremely promising debut from Oakman. Aside from the odd overwrought moment, his writing is lucid and compelling, with well-defined and believable characters. I hope to see more of his work on Oxford stages in future.

Leah Broad

To book tickets for ‘Potosí’, please visit the Burton Taylor website.

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