Review: End of the Line

Madeleine Olver 3 February 2019
Image Credit: End of the Line via Facebook

★★★★

Will J. Wood’s End of the Line is a short and bitter story about the widespread closing of manual telephone exchanges in the UK in December 1969. The play digs deep into the impact of this on the women who had been employed as operators. We watch the central character Susan struggle in vain against the rise of the automated switchboard. Wood is clearly very passionate about this moment in time, engaging his audience in a powerful theatrical discussion about the fight for employment in the context of mechanisation. Though End of the Line’s action may be set in the past, its themes are extremely topical.

The story arc is well constructed and the plot well-paced within the play’s hour long running time. However, the mystery caller at the end of a silent line feels somewhat incidental to the main concerns of the play. It might have been more convincing if their plotline was connected to someone other than Susan. For this reason, the story of lost love does not quite manage to be compelling.

Nonetheless, the representation of a lesbian couple within the period setting was handled extremely well. It was inserted unobtrusively and felt utterly realistic – Susan’s avoidance of naming Charlie/Charlotte’s gender in her discussion with Mary was particularly poignant. On the whole, the writing was strong, thoroughly supported by attention to accurate historical detail.

End of the Line is undeniably a technically complex production, integrating action with phone calls. Ella Pound did a phenomenal job on the sound effects, seamlessly weaving volumes and timings. There was constant telephone dialling and many moments where sounds were not only playing over each other but also over the actors’ speech. The cast successfully maintained the right pitch during scenes of overlapping dialogue despite obvious difficulties, and continued to impress with their memorisation of disjointed and one-sided lines.

Wood definitely set a challenge for the actors in writing the majority of exchanges between characters while they were in separate places, only connected by the phone line. This resulted in the cast mostly performing into space, preventing them from bouncing off the energy of their fellow actors. And yet Emily Rose Webster and Izzy Collie-Cousins, the two female leads, were especially notable not only for their engaging delivery of monologues to the silent phone, but also for their portrayal of characters that had both depth and integrity.  In the first half of the play, Emily Rose Webster’s Susan impressively managed to maintain character during others’ long exchanges. Her presence could be felt, and her facial expressions were convincing.

Mariam Haji was creative with the lighting design despite the restricted venue, and the systematic dimming of lights over the audience in the lead up to the silent phone monologues was very effective. The interesting coloured spotlights used at the back of the room, for example the red light on Charlie/Charlotte at the end of the play, were sadly lost because of the positioning of the audience. Though the staging and set did compromise some elements of the lighting design, they were overall extremely effective. Phyllida Hickish’s placing of the various telephones created a fun immersive experience that almost made me feel like the switchboard itself.

The supporting aesthetic elements of the show also deserve a mention, as they gave it a polished finish. Erin Hudson’s costume choices worked well, and the graphics of the poster design fitted perfectly with the period and tone of the performance. Overall, End of the Line was a well-written and executed production, and while not faultless, it was certainly enjoyable to watch.