Fahrenheit 451 should be an exceptionally difficult story to transfer to the stage. So much of Ray Bradbury’s description and the book’s sense of claustrophobia should be completely impossible to convey within the limits of a theatre production. Despite these challenges, Charlotte Vickers has created a beautiful and immersive setting of this play, previously running at the Michael Pilch studio in Oxford, which was one of the strongest pieces of student theatre I’ve seen.
The story is set in a dystopian reality where firemen burn books, starting fires instead of putting them out. The plot follows Guy Montag’s (Chris Page’s) awakening to the misery of a life under this system, inspired by Clarisse (Islah Wallace) to start seeing the world differently. Page played Montag as initially emotionally illiterate, unable to voice his thoughts about the world around him, unsure whether he is happy in the life he has had set out for him by family tradition and the society which controls him. After his meeting with Clarisse, Page acted out the slow unfurling of his thoughts and feelings with sensitivity, allowing him moments of rage, confusion, and despair. At points the script was slightly wooden and Page was unfortunately a victim of this more often than most, but he dealt with those moments with class and professionalism, lifting the quality of the script with his performance.
The two performances which stood out were Ali Porteous as Beatty and Sophia Rolt as Mildred. These two actors could have carried the entire play on their shoulders if they had needed to, and it is a credit to the rest of the cast that the quality of acting was so high across the board that it did not feel like there was an imbalance. Porteous’ Beatty was commanding, with incredible depth. I have rarely seen one actor able to create so much tension in a scene, let alone in a student production. As for Rolt’s Mildred, she was perfectly unhinged, flitting between mania and clarity to create an image of a crazed housewife, addicted to the family dramas put on to placate brain-washed population of Bradbury’s world. Both completely inhabited their characters, and I commend the director for the attention to detail in movement and speech which was present throughout the cast. The instances of choreographed, mirrored movement were a particularly nice touch.
The quality of acting was exceptional throughout the rest of the cast, with only one or two exceptions. The characterisation of the firemen as gum-chewing meatheads and the eerie medics were two particular highlights for me, but every actor seemed extremely committed to their characters to an almost unnerving level. It was one of those shows where you wanted to meet the cast afterwards, to see if they really were like the personalities they portrayed.
The Pilch was the ideal space for this show, and my only quibble with the setting would be the use of Russian propaganda-style posters. I understand the logic behind using this material, but I think that in a show which was so intelligent and with so much thought put into it everywhere else, it seemed a little lazy. Elsewhere the backstage effort of the production team on this show was absolutely exceptional. Christina Hill’s costumes were perfectly fitted to every character, and were reminiscent of the book itself in how they leaned towards the styles of the sixties. The firemen’s black leather was pulled off stylishly when it could have easily looked deviant or contrived, and the costuming of the ‘books’ was suitably surreal in the move away from the city.
There wasn’t a single use of sound or lighting in this production that did not add something to the atmosphere of a scene; the physical theatre involved in the attack of the hound just would not have been the same without the smoke and sound design. The clever use of lighting and sound enabled the production to create such an effective image of Bradbury’s fictional world; I would recommend that anyone who wants to use sound and recorded tracks in their show looks to this production as an example.
Overall, I was hugely impressed by this production and would encourage anyone who is a fan of student theatre to seek out the future work of everyone involved. I have no doubt that the quality will continue to be as high as in this show.
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