Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester; Friday 11th May, 2018
A young family head to the tranquil solitude of the Lake District: an annual holiday, always to the same cottage each year. All is not well though – teenaged Jack is struggling to process the overwhelming grief that consumes him following the death of his father. But in the depths of an ever-worsening sense of despair, Jack suddenly finds a very unexpected outlet for his pain – a mysterious entry in the visitor’s book.
Written and produced by the Oldham Theatre Workshop, The Visitor’s Book is a stunningly uplifting story of how distant strangers find salvation from two very different experiences of long-term pain and suffering.
The stage is a busy one with the cast split into two: older and younger versions of the same family play out their scenes side by side, almost seeming to interact with each other, both physically and verbally, despite the gulf in time between them.
There is a tangible sense of sadness that runs throughout this show, not just associated with the obvious issues surrounding bereavement but also in the form of Sophie Ellicott’s performance as the valiant mother trying to shake her son out of it – especially as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s old enough to know that sometimes mum can’t just make it all ok.
But contrasting vividly against the doom and gloom are moments of comedic hilarity – most notably Tommy Douglas materialising his grief as young Jack in the shape of outrageously childlike tantrums at the lack of wifi; and the amusing efforts of Poppy O’Brien, the youngest member of the cast, who breaks a particularly sombre and crucial point in the plot with a ridiculously amusing Viking funeral for a dead mouse.
Child actors are normally cast in quite minor roles in an adult play. But this is different, these aren’t just pat-on-the-head performances, these are crucial roles, not only in the plot but also in the emotional delivery of the performance with seemingly child-like fooling around actually providing an important context in which to place the stronger themes running beneath.
The Visitor’s Book is an absolutely stunning work of theatrical writing. The construction of this show is just perfect for the stage, this probably wouldn’t have half the impact it did if it was adapted for the screen, or rendered as written words in a novel. The show doesn’t even feel like a musical, the singing is mostly always brief and used to connect key moments together, almost providing welcome moments of brief contemplation, allowing scenes and possibilities to be stitched together in the mind.
There are some massive musicals on stage in Manchester’s biggest theatres right now: lavish, big-budget productions on international tours, with famous faces drawing the crowds. The Visitor’s Book doesn’t have any of this yet it beats the lot of them as an entertainment spectacle thanks to a poignant yet uplifting story that is both brilliantly written and entertainingly delivered.
|Visual pleasure||Set entirely amongst the sofas and tables of a cosy holiday cottage, the permanent presence of two casts portraying two different time periods set the mind racing in order to keep up with the unfurling plot.||4|
|Auditory pleasure||An on-stage drummer and pianist provided a perfect backing track that set the mood and helped to drive the story. This is musical in nature, rather than being a ‘musical’ where e.g. 15 songs are sung linearly – the transitions between spoken words and brief periods of sung words were smooth and added plenty of ‘thinking time’ – which was welcome, given that the plot is relatively complex.||4|
|Architecture & Theme||A stunningly good piece of writing, tension and intrigue being wound up continually throughout the performance, all culminating in one of the best endings that I’ve ever seen on stage – simply because it wasn’t predictable yet provided such a welcome sense of closure.||5|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding performances from all involved, both in terms of acting and singing. The hang-point of the interval was timed to perfection, and the second half just seemed to accelerate towards the bewildering finale.||5|
|Overall impact||Puts some of Manchester’s other, bigger-budgeted musicals to shame. The storyline is more like a thriller, rather than a musical, yet somehow it works brilliantly together thanks to the ingenious way in which two strands of the same story play out side by side, uniting only at the very end.||5|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|