Review by Sam Waite
Warning: Please be aware that Snowflakes contains discussions of sexual assault and paedophilia, as well as on-stage violence including visible blood and the use of firearms.
Terms like “woke” and “cancel culture” are thrown around with an increasingly reckless abandon in recent years – recent developments following the passing of Paul O’Grady brought to light quite how often these words are used with no real understanding of their meaning. Few, if any, of these “cancelled” figures truly lose their platform and status – with this in mind, Robert Boulton’s Snowflakes presents a world where the opinions of online viewers really can dictate a person’s future.
The entire play is set within a hotel room, a spacious, minimalist, and immediately familiar setting brought to life by designer Alys Whitehead. With a city skyline visible through open blinds, it’s surprisingly easy to envision how the walls and fixtures of this room look, with only a low double bed and a chair as decoration. In this room is Tony, asleep face down while the audience files in and awakening disoriented at the start of the performance – silencing his phone and taking a call from his wife as he begins to dress, he seems worse for wear but ready for an ordinary enough day.
An arrival of complimentary room service quickly ends this façade of normalcy. Marcus and Sarah, two agents of a mysterious organisation who “don’t work for the hotel, [but] at the hotel” knock him unconscious and begin to set up camera equipment. Sarah is fresh out of a Product Development role for their company and has been paired up with old-hand Marcus. The two have a strained beginning to their relationship but begin to settle into their partnership – their job is to interview and potentially dispose of “undesirable” members of the community, based on the live reactions of a livestream audience.
Boulton’s script is insightful and often cutting, never presuming to have the correct answers or the absolute moral high ground. It’s clear as the events of this single day play out that the trio of characters all have their ethical failings, and the audience is allowed the freedom to decide for themselves who to view as a villain. His dialogue is refreshingly light on the kind of buzzwords a title like Snowflakes might imply, allowing these terms to make a real impact when they are used. Perhaps the only potential failing of the writing is that many will question the backstory of this mysterious but apparently well-known and fast-growing company – it seems that they operate this hotel for the purposes of their work, and characters frequently mention a presumed-boss referred to as simply, “Her.”
Louise Hoare is tasked with bringing to life Sarah’s determination to stay detached and objective – this is a job to her; she doesn’t want to take any joy in their assignment’s suffering or form any opinion on their potential innocence. While she delivers her lines exceptionally well, the real power of Hoare’s performance is when Sarah is left in the background of confrontations between the two men. Here, her face carries so much burgeoning emotion, then a glassy exterior falls over her eyes and mouth when she catches herself becoming too involved.
Boulton himself, pulling double duty as long-time killer Marcus, is the most outwardly funny of the characters. Having crafted a particular balance of darkness and comedy, he sets the tone by having Marcus behave almost cartoonishly at times – when the livestream takes place he mugs for the camera and makes peace signs, every inch the over-eager content creator. This allows for a stunning shift when the harshness of the situation becomes more apparent, with that same chaotic energy bringing to light the violent nature of the performance.
Presumed wrong-doer Tony is played by Henry Davis, giving a memorable performance despite lengthy stretches as either unconscious or bound to a chair. Garnering a fair amount of chuckles both from his well-calibrated disorientation and his cutting, snide responses once fully awake, his descent into hysterics is rapid and terrifyingly believable when the weight of the situation can no longer be ignored. Crucially for the questions being posed by the text, it’s difficult to tell whether this is a man pleading for a second chance after his transgressions have put him in jeopardy, or a relative innocent whose online detractors have done so.
Michael Cottrell obviously understands the significance of Tony’s guilt or innocence being unknown, the events of his past only referred to and never fully explored. Encouraging Boulton’s more manic work as Marcus, Cottrell seems to have focused on Sarah as his conduit within the piece, her body language, delivery, and even positioning on the stage representing how sure an observer might be at any moment that Tony is unforgivably evil.
Cottrell’s positioning and movement of the actors allows us insight into the characters as human beings – where Sarah shies away from being seen more than necessary, Marcus frequently wanders between Tony and the camera in his excitement at the job, keeping the attention of what he clearly sees as his audience. A great deal of credit must go to Bethan Clarke, whose work as fight director not only results in realistic and sometimes truly frightening struggles, but also provides further insight into these characters. As you might except, Sarah’s more straight-forward approach contrasts Marcus, who makes such sharp, muscular movements that we can tell he takes joy in causing pain.
The video design by Dan Light works largely well, including extended periods where the then-drawn blinds are used to project the performances in real time so we can see what the livestream audience sees. Unfortunately, brief moments of a distorted, glitch-like effect across the back wall seem to suggest a more tech-focused, sci-fi leaning piece that the script simply isn’t aiming for, creating a slight disconnect. Lighting by Jonathan Chan is uncomplicated and deeply effective, making use of blackouts to allow for suspenseful reveals and a harsh increase in lighting to bring a clinical element to one particularly harrowing scene.
Though some will likely be frustrated with a story more willing to open up more questions than to answer any it has already posed, Snowflakes demonstrates with a remarkable ease why it’s previous run at the Old Red Lion was so highly praised. With an actor-playwright uninterested in hogging the spotlight joined by two others whose work greatly elevates the nuance and delicacy of the material, this production ought to leave viewers questioning the actions not only of the characters, but perhaps of themselves.
Snowflakes plays at the Park Theatre until May 6th.
For tickets and more information head to https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/snowflakes
Photos by Jennifer Evans