Updated: Jun 21
Review by Harry Bower
Note: This review contains light spoilers for a plot twist, so if you are reading this ahead of seeing the show in a subsequent run you are advised accordingly…
A tiny room in the basement of a coffee shop in Waterloo is an eerily appropriate venue for the work in progress debut of Gate Number 5, a part-physical, part-virtual one-person show which relies on intimacy for its success. A story of two lovers who meet on a Hinge date is told from the one-sided perspective of a woman who leads the audience through her journey of meeting, falling for, and becoming engaged to, her girlfriend. The partner is represented entirely through video recordings projected onto the wall. As the pair fall in love together the structure of the piece describes their ‘firsts’; the first time they say ‘I love you’, the first time they get drunk together, even the first time they lose the air of mystery around each other’s bathroom trips. It’s paced in a really lovely way, building suspense as the audience are exposed to more intimate moments in the relationship. We are suckered into wanting a happy ending.
The fundamentals are that this interracial lesbian couple is made up of two immigrants. Given the title of the show and the above lead-in, you might be able to guess in which direction the heartbreak ends up. When a break-in results in the police being called, it’s only a matter of time until the unfair nature of immigration law is exposed and the pair suffer the consequences. It’s a clever decision not to reveal the political intentions of the piece until after the audience have already formed a bond with its leads. Once out there, those intentions hit hard and with significant emotional weight.
It's not immediately clear whether this was the performer’s true story or if it was based instead on anecdotes or someone else’s tragedy, but what is unambiguous is the emotional investment and boundless energy she commits to the role. Having also written the piece, Henriette Laursen is at one with it, and it shows. There are some delightfully comic moments laced with sarcasm and self-deprecating humour, matched equally by the more introspective admissions of anxiety, or relationship neediness. Laursen has created a lead character desperate to be loved, and who wears her heart on her sleeve, yet has a stoicism about her which intrigues and keeps the audience interested rather than dismissing some of the more stereotypically annoying character traits. Princess McDonnough does a great job as the partner, playing to a camera in this hybrid piece. She gives an earnest performance as a loving girlfriend caught up in a whirlwind of a relationship. Some of the warmth and honesty is lost in translation because of the technology, so I did find it hard to warm to her at the beginning – though she pulls it off thanks in no small part to the chemistry she has with Laursen.
On the technology, it’s certainly a unique and fun way to structure a show, and while I was super impressed by some of the video calling and part-virtual, part-physical conversations – which can easily be clunky but weren’t – I did feel as though the intensity of the relationship was somewhat lost because of it. A side effect of the integration of screens is that Laursen begins the show addressing ‘you’ (the partner) as she’s on a video call, but this is quickly dropped (because a show with one woman looking at a phone for an hour wouldn’t be particularly interesting). That was the right decision but it means there are tonal inconsistencies with the audience being addressed as ‘you’ and the fourth wall being broken, juxtaposed with the conversations the characters are having together. It’s occasionally confusing and jolts us out of the narrative. There are a few other areas for improvement which are striking only because the rest of the piece is so well polished; a Rishi Sunak lip-sync is hilarious but needs more rehearsal to be even funnier, and an odd and somewhat uncomfortable piece of physical theatre in the middle left me asking ‘why?’.
I’m cautious of being too critical partly because this is still a work in progress and also because this is a play which is not only enjoyable and entertaining, but important. It makes an urgent and impassioned appeal to its audience about the state of the UK Government and immigration law, and effectively makes its point about the humanity (or lack thereof) of the decisions being made on a daily basis. How can it be fair that someone who’s lived in and grew up in a country for twenty years is deported? How is it right that two people in love are separated forever without the opportunity to say goodbye? The silence at the end of the show in which the performer leaves the stage without taking a bow is deafening. Thought provoking and distressing often go hand in hand in theatre, and that is certainly the case here. I left the theatre feeling as though we the audience had also lost someone unfairly. To evoke such a reaction is of great credit to the writing and performance.
Gate Number 5 played at A Pinch of VAULT, part of VAULT Festival’s new and work in progress mini fringe festival. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/gate-number-5/
Keep up to date with VAULT Festival as it searches for a new home ahead of 2024’s event, here: https://vaultfestival.com/