Pills is an exciting concept-driven piece of theatre that is worth going to almost for its location
alone. The Heong Gallery at Downing College was originally built in 2016 to fulfil its community
obligations after the construction of its postgraduate accommodation Battcock Lodge. Since then,
the gallery (which has free entry for all), has flourished, with exhibitions from the likes of Yoko
Ono. Three years on from its opening, the gallery will remain open, despite the fact that the
obligation for which it was built has now timed out. The current exhibition, around which Pills
takes it shape, is from the celebrated 20th century artist Barbara Hepworth, and is named ‘Divided
Circle’. The exhibition examines celestial objects and natural forms in relation to each other,
combining cultural forms and paintings alike.
An art gallery currently in the throes of an exhibition may seem an odd setting for a theatre, but it
became quite a necessary one. The audience for Pills is not confined to a classic spectatorial space,
but is instead invited to roam freely around the gallery, and to move with the play’s action. Never
fear, there are a handful of chairs provided, ostensibly for those “less able to stand”, but after an
hour and twenty minutes of performance, we found that most of our audience had given in and
occupied a chair. This high-concept and experimental style of performance was highly thrilling, and
epitomises the kind of boundary-pushing to which student theatre lends itself so well.
The play opens in the gallery with its lead character ‘waking up’ in the corner of the room. It
becomes immediately apparent that she does not know where she is and has been locked in the
gallery. As a white, echoing, one-room space, the Heong was perfect to play this sterile cubicle. As
the protagonist’s emotions crescendo to the peak of their distress, they exclaimed that they were
being watched, giving the audience a strange sense of complicity in their imprisonment, an effect
made all the more potent by the active nature of the audience’s role.
Beyond its theatrical merits, Pills could not help but disappoint a little. The interplay of the two
characters ‘Annie’ and ‘David’ was made incredibly confusing by the play’s tendency to “reset”
scenes and events, and to exchange actors at bizarre intervals. Annie and David were played well by
the myriad actors that portrayed them, but there was similarly a capacity of sort to the extent the
actors could go, when the characters themselves suffered primarily from a lack of self-knowledge or
understanding. The point, I suppose, was to illustrate the fluidity of truth and narrative, and to
explore, in this unique space and performance context, what a play owes to its audience, and how a
story can be conducted without any linear guidelines. The overall effect however, was one of
pretentious confusion, the kind that delights in its own ability to obfuscate the truth that is no doubt
buried somewhere in the script, but not given to the audience.
At the heart of this mystery were the titular Pills, which were taken by characters at regular
intervals to erase their memories. The true nature of the pills never feels truly resolved, but whether
they are an experimental memory drug or a placebo doesn’t really matter as, an hour in to multiple
and ‘forgotten’ arcs, one begins to suspect they are in actuality nothing more than narrative device
to reset the scenes, as well as a metaphor for all human fallacy.