Review: CODA

Davina Moss 12 March 2012


ADC Lateshow, 11pm, until Sat 10th March


In this term’s great debate about reviewers’ worth (or lack thereof), much has been said of the danger in Cambridge of the interpersonal interaction between actor and reviewer. Giving a harsh review to people you like is stressful, but for the sake of journalistic integrity, necessary. ‘CODA’ is realised by an incredibly nice group of people, which is why it pains me so much to express how misguided their enterprise is.

The play opens with Cal (Harry Sheehan) and Jess (Hattie Lloyd) moving Hollywood-style into their new flat, and follows their burgeoning romance for a few scenes where they vaguely discuss philosophy and morality, in the way that people in plays do. A dark secret of Cal’s is then revealed which controls the remainder of the action. It’s a heavy one, this secret, and not the kind of thing a writer should treat lightly. But, inexplicably, Powell does – he never seems to fully explore what this kind of information would do to the accused, or to those around them. Much of the play focuses on Jess’ reaction, but it’s bizarrely superficial: at no point did I genuinely believe in how she felt – not because of Lloyd’s acting, which keenly attempts to plunge emotional depths, but due to her dialogue’s false and overwritten tone. Every time we nearly reach something human and genuine, it’s suddenly lost. In a scene that began, as a surprising number of student-written scenes do, with “Remember that dream I had as a child?” Jess reaches out to her mother for help. The script here was pretty dire, evoking a metaphor so transparent it was grating to hear, but the idea of seeking comfort and security felt so right, and is immediately dismissed for more pointless interactions. Lloyd’s not given the chance to shine she deserves. Moreover, some of the most emotional and potentially insightful scenes in which she visits Cal in prison are marred by such harsh lighting that their faces are mainly in shadow, and nuanced performance is lost. Actually, overall the lighting design looked great, but it ruined these scenes.

I completely did not get Harry Sheehan’s Cal. Possibly he plays the part lightly and almost carelessly because the character is innocent. But then, there seems no good reason for the events to play out like they do; perhaps I have more faith in the criminal justice system than Powell, but it seems unlikely that the level of scrutiny he comes under would be entirely unfounded. Equally, perhaps we should assume the character is guilty, in which case Sheehan seems woefully lacking in nuance – where is the pain of unfulfilled desire, where is the strain of years of secrecy, where is the isolation that comes from being unable to trust anyone? This was a key issue with the entire play; by attempting ambiguity, it explores no possibility fully. If Jess really believes that Cal is guilty, why is she so calm? The subject matter is so emotive for a reason, unless with this attempt to make light of profundity Powell is trying to suggest we should all be more au fait with it. Conservative as it might seem, I don’t think we should.

There were redeeming features. Martha Bennett, despite speaking some gruellingly terrible lines (such as some ill-advised banter about how all lesbians are short), brings freshness and a comedic burst to the stage. Ned Carpenter stole the show as a Scottish police officer who seemed to be the only person with a real understanding of the gravity of the situation, while Margaret Maurer’s cold lawyer was haunting – if, again, unrealistic: we are aware that no one would behave like that in such a situation.

The unpleasantness of the accusations is, I’m sure, not something Powell himself has ever had to deal with: fair enough. But I’m sure he knows what it’s like to keep secrets, to have them revealed and to discover a hitherto unseen side to a person. The sense of mistrusting oneself seemed oddly absent – the anger, the violation. Several years ago, a member of my family was revealed to have certain highly shameful secrets. I won’t reveal more, but I remember incredibly clearly the reactions of those around him: the sense of betrayal, the hurt, the lack of understanding. It tore into and people and into my family. ‘CODA’ focuses on the revelation of a dark secret, and how such emotional information can irrevocably affect relationships. Yet as I was watching, I saw nothing of the experience my family had undergone; none of the rawness that comes from looking at someone you’ve let touch you, know your secrets, love you, and realising they’re nothing that you thought they were. Powell chose to play with fire in the material he tackled, and as anyone with health and safety training will tell you, you have to respect fire. Untimely, ‘CODA’ doesn’t.

Davina Moss