Review by Harry Bower
Sometimes I think about how much better life would be if I had a superpower. The ability to fly, or turn invisible, or be able to eat as much Ben and Jerry’s as I want without putting on weight. I’m sure many readers have had the same thoughts, but I wonder how many of us have ever aspired to have a power worthy of a villain? And what would happen if the world was suddenly full of people with powers they can use with bad intentions to disrupt and cause harm?
Villain, Interrupted by Dolls in Amber Theatre Company is a play about just that, set largely in a prison which houses such people (known as the ‘powered’), and centres around the journey of a plucky and naïve therapist as they attempt to understand, build relationships with, and rehabilitate a set of so-called villains. Gina is our therapist, played with an alluring, unrelenting and frustrating optimism by the enchanting Emma Richardson. Gina’s story is a familiar one for those who know of the ‘do-gooder’ stereotype. An affable vegan psychologist wearing a flowery shirt and preaching second chances, she appears first to be a bit two dimensional – but the power in Richardson’s performance is that she gives Gina a depth and emotional intelligence which is entirely believable.
Gina’s opposite is a powered villain and one of her cohort, Seth. Seth’s ability to draw anything and make it come to life with their hands resulted in them being locked up for criminal damage, threatening to turn the prison into cheese and mess once again with the Mona Lisa. Played by Robbie Bellekom, Seth has a mischievous delinquency about them and is played with angsty charm. Bellekom is a strong performer and compliments Richardson’s calm understated delivery with their assertive and calculated embodiment of a character who is actually unsure and just wants to be loved.
The other characters are played by two further cast members, completing the quadruple. Francesca Forristal and Sofia Engstrand between them play eight characters (I think? It was hard to keep track!). This is a masterclass in character acting. Each role they take up is genuinely distinguishable from the next, and as each is revisited they make it immediately clear to the audience through clever use of body language, physical theatre, impeccable accent work and some quirky personality traits. Many times the pair change characters midway through a scene, and the cast achieve this effectively by the making of ‘zip’ sounds with their mouths whenever a change takes place. That sounds a bit ridiculous, and actually, it is. But it fits incredibly well with the overall tone and aesthetic of the piece.
Speaking of which, both are reminiscent of Marvel or DC universes but with a theatrical-take – and there is a parallel to be drawn between those franchises and this show in that the villains are the most flawed and therefore interesting characters, and more often than not the ones people end up rooting for (think Loki). The overall design of the show is super effective in its comic book style. An overhead projector is the tool of choice for some supreme shadow-work, with the predictable ‘pow’ and ‘boom’ style graphics complimented by some less predictable and more inventive repurposing of paper cuttings and liquids.
With the narrative essentially a fifty minute flashback, the open and close of the piece are framed as a press interview between a reporter and Gina, who is explaining her understanding and role in recent prison riots which took place and resulted in the escape of Seth. This is perhaps the least fleshed-out part of the script and as a book-end does a good job of closing the chapter, but could also be a storytelling mechanic which is used in the crafting of a longer version of the show. The same can be said of some of the villains – with such brilliant ideas floating around in the crafting of the characters, this is a show which could easily have filled two acts with a more complex storyline.
If you look really, really hard, then the show does have something to say about the treatment of prisoners and the role of rehabilitation in our society. It makes the point that rehabilitation is only possible if the prisoners believe they have a second chance available to them and the parallels between the prison board in the play and the reality of our prison system in the UK are thinly veiled. I’ve got to say though, that it’s not the first thing I thought about during the show – and it was only when the dialogue slapped me in the face with it that I started to question those societal questions. That’s not a bad thing – quite the opposite. The show was just so fun and engaging that I was happy taking it for what it was, a great story.
Villain, Interrupted is eclectic fun in a well-developed and amusing world, created by writers who clearly have a talent for storytelling, featuring an outstanding and talented cast whom I feel compelled to follow in their next projects. It builds a believable narrative despite the unbelievable powers of its characters and flirts with serious topics like class struggle, family relationships, queer lived experiences, and prison rehabilitation. Mostly though, it is fun of an extremely high standard.
Villain, Interrupted played at VAULT Festival 18-19 March 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/performances/villain-interrupted/.