An Olivier award winner returns to the West End for just three weeks as Ruth Wilson stars in a new production of Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice. First premiering in 1930, it has been adapted multiple times before in many languages including a short film in 2020 and an upcoming film which will be premiering on the BBC this Spring. This adaptation was first performed in Antwerp in 2009 and now makes its way over to the West End.
Produced by Sonia Friedman Productions and directed by Ivo Van Hove, a very unique setup greets you as you take your seats at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Designed by Jan Versweyveld, a box with a glass window adorns the middle of a stage - the rest of which is covered up. With all the action taking place in this static space, it runs the risk of being samey and repetitive, though several tricks including it becoming a screen door helps mix up the monotony somewhat. The layout of the stage does mean there are a lot more restricted view seats in the theatre than usual though - a great idea but flawed in its execution.
In terms of the story, The Human Voice is a 70 minute one-act monologue where our nameless character spends the majority of the time on the phone to her unseen and unheard former lover. While the details of this one-sided conversation can be ambiguous and open to interpretation, we learn the events that led to them splitting up with a darkness at play. Without giving much away, there is a twist at the end that is foreshadowed throughout the monodrama. However, this was fairly predictable and could have been delivered with more of an impact. As the performance and our character both unravel, things become even more unclear. Answers are never given and certain choices in the show feel like they were done as art for arts sake rather than pushing the narrative forward or attempting to connect with the audience.
The use of music intersperses parts of the show with the likes of Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus being inserted fairly jarringly in a mixed soundtrack. Assuming this is meant to add to the juxtaposition and uncertainty of the atmosphere, it just seems odd at times. Though a great use of sound from Erwin Sterk and David Gregory which varies when Ruth is inside the box and outside of it is inspired, including one particularly brilliant bit when sound plays a key part in the unravelling of the character. Other times throughout The Human Voice are eerily silent which in theory should drive the emotion and rawness of the piece, though this doesn't quite hit the mark. The lighting from Martijn Smolders also helps lift a generic space, giving it character and personality reflecting the change in tone.
Known for her many acclaimed appearances both on stage and screen, Ruth Wilson is an incredible actress and that is clear to see here. Through some unconventional and complicated dialogue, she is utterly mesmerising to witness and we watch her character go through uncontrollable laughter to hysterical crying. She really is a saving grace in a play that could otherwise prove dull and boring, always ensuring all eyes are glued on her. Such is the power of her presence that even her off-stage moments help fill an otherwise empty setting. As great as an actress as she is, she can only do the best she can with the material that has been provided - it's hard to think of anybody being able to do a better job, but even she can't stop an overlong sequence where she sits in silence, not moving, being frustrating to watch.
While The Human Voice throws some interesting themes such as loneliness, human connection and mental health, it never quite lives up to its promise. With an accomplished actress and a director known for greatness, more often than not this falls flat and left me fairly underwhelmed. For a show that is predominantly about human connection, it fundamentally fails to make a decent connection with the audience and leaves us wanting more. This is especially frustrating, given that as we are in a time when so many of us have recently faced unprecedented loneliness, The Human Voice should have proved more relatable than ever. However, it is still worth a watch purely to see Ruth Wilson do what she does best in such an intimate production. Not a bad show per se but maybe not one you will be talking about for long afterwards.
The Human Voice plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until April 9th. Tickets from www.thehumanvoiceplay.co.uk