an exciting milestone when a play moves out of the rehearsal room and into the theatre for production week, and it's fascinating to observe the Wish List team make that transition.
On first reading, the imagined world of Katherine Soper's play resonates quite naturally with contemporary Britain, and might even appear familiar. That of a girl becoming an adult without the love and support of her parents, and the trials she must face whilst caring for her disabled brother. Of the impenetrable and crippling wall of bureaucracy surrounding the social welfare and benefits system they struggle with, and the punishing and thankless temporary warehouse work environment the girl navigates to support the two of them - including the vital companionship she finds there.
All of the decisions and combined efforts of the creative team up to this point have been to realise this imagined and somewhat familiar world. It is clear from Matthew Xia's process however, that to avoid a superficial rendering of what is unique to this play, that world must ultimately be treated as unknown. From pre-production and throughout rehearsal, the task has been to creatively explore, research, examine and test the model of this world, to lead and encourage the team to break it down and piece it back together from within - to understand it afresh.
Now, in the studio at the Royal Exchange, all that work is coming together, and the atmosphere reflects the importance of this change. Whilst the obvious professionalism and routine tasks of each individual are maintained, it is clear that everyone has stepped up a gear, and the pressure has increased - along with the levels of excitement and anticipation. There seems a more intense dynamic between the actors - still with a sense of fun and good humour, but with a more deliberate and assured attitude - from their intensive and specific voice and body warm up, to the clarity of focus they exhibit whilst rehearsing scenes.
The newly constructed lighting installation has begun to enclose and transform the space, and the previous rehearsal environment, made of tape marks on the floor and mostly standby set and props, has now come to life, forming the two distinct locations that create the stage picture: a confined and very basic home at one end, and the industrial environment of the warehouse at the other. The production team are equally concentrated and efficient in their tasks, with clear and assertive discussions and decisions happening all around, with what appears to be almost continuous transformation of the physical space, as the concept now adjusts to the reality of the theatrical studio environment. In the hour long break over lunch for example, the kitchen area is transformed with a layer of theatrical grime, there are handles and catches fitted to moving pieces of set, covers attached to the main lighting assembly, monitors fixed to the overhead walkway, and sliding drawers fitted to the moveable conveyors that form the centrepiece of the set.
In the time Matthew has with the actors, he works them hard, regularly breaking up the action of the scene and turning the screw on their specific actions and intentions. The timing of the looks they give, the connections they make, and the weight and stress given to the thoughts behind the lines - all are considered. Directing this way, moment by moment, the actors need to work especially hard to maintain concentration and not lose the rhythm and qualities contained within the scenes as a whole. His confidence in their ability pays off however, and they produce some lovely work. A scene where Tamsin, the lead character of the play, and Luke, the friend she finds in the Warehouse, have a chance to connect outside of the pressured environment of the workplace, is particularly affecting. The two characters really share something, with the specific and deliberate shifts contained within each moment, now breathing new life and truth into the scene.
Inevitable compromises of a rehearsal process become apparent by the middle of the afternoon however. After rehearsing over schedule to cover specific important moments in a couple of scenes, the plan to run the whole of the play for the last part of the session, will now mean cutting into valuable tech time, and the actors staying later than contracted. Calls have to be made by stage management to the lighting department and a request put in to the actors and the rest of the production team to work later than expected. It's the first full run in the space and it's vital that it happens, but the conflict between being able to focus on moments within individual scenes and also have a chance to look at the work as a whole, is clear. Belief in the process and team morale is essential, but never more so than at this stage. Throughout my time in rehearsal, the whole team have appeared empowered by Matthew's faith in them to meet the task, and he has reassured them with a balance of clam assertion, occasional self-deprecation, charm and good humour - and no fear of getting his hands dirty. The same applies now as he joins the team in preparing and tidying the space for the run.
As is to be expected, running the whole play throws up problems, with issues of sightlines and balancing the weight of the stage pictures being an important factor when working in traverse. The complexity of packing and working the stage machinery is sometimes at odds with following the sense of the story, and there are times when the actors inevitably lose their way. At the stage the production is at, none of this is unexpected, but what I see on the whole, more and more, is a powerful and heart-breaking story, a searing indictment on the cruelty of temporary working practice and our badly broken social care system, well told by a very strong team.