REVIEW: ‘Breath’ by Bonchurch Theatre Company at Quay Arts

Image result for ventnor royal national hospital

This original play, written by a member of the Company and performed on 1 June at Quay Arts, is based round extracts from the real 1870’s diary of a patient at Ventnor Royal National Hospital (the site of which is now the Botanic Gardens): knowing this, I was expecting the play to be poignant, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Sitting in the audience however, I did wonder how a rehearsed reading would come across, especially seeing the actors seated in a line facing us, chatting, before the show began: would this take something from the suspension of disbelief required from an audience? Again, I need not have worried – each member of the cast made his/her character come alive through skilled use of voice.

A rehearsed reading is a difficult thing to bring off – it is neither a radio play, relying on voice alone, nor the more realistic setting of a fully acted play. I did feel at times that some of the players treated it slightly too much as the former: occasionally words and expression were lost because actors were looking down at the script on their laps, and scenes at times slid into each other without clear transition. I would like to have seen characters involved in each scene perhaps standing up and making eye contact with each other and the audience more: the stand-out performance for me was Chris Rickards as Nell, a fellow patient who befriends the main character, John Whiteley: her eye contact with the audience and vocal expression was superb, and the scene in which John invites her to return to her beloved Bath in her imagination was mesmerising.

There were also very effective interchanges between young Thomas Webber and his teacher and father, depicting the tension between Thomas’s artistic talent and the expectations of his father, a finely drawn and acted character whose own repressed grief for his dead wife was beautifully portrayed. There was solid support from the characters of the doctor and nurse at the hospital but it was in the gradually evolving friendship between Thomas and John which formed the core of the play, and John’s irascibility and refusal to acknowledge the truth of his failing health underpinned much of the emotion in this. The final scenes were emotional and compelling.

I am not sure at present when Bonchurch Theatre Company will be performing ‘Breath’ again – I hope it is soon, and I would encourage you to see it: it is a story worth telling.

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