The Refuge, by Lynne O’Sullivan, and performed by the nascent Balon Rouge Theatre Company, delivers a punchy melodrama in just over an hour.
This production is itself a refuge for the weary pub goer looking for a change of scenery. Walking into the Barons Court Theatre is like going back in time. The basement theatre is hidden below a bustling pub and evokes nostalgia for the past and a simpler experience of theatre. One where you could wander down from the bar to be entertained for an hour or two, discovering a cold new world on stage, enshrined by thick stone walls and velvet seats.
“A bite-size thriller to chew on before another drink”
The Refuge takes place in such a world. The off-season in a Cornish coastal holiday town in the 1970s can, in fact, get no colder. With multiple murders, secret affairs and ghostly presences the play could have been too much for the small company to handle, however, the actors carry the audience enthusiastically through the almost implausible twists and turns of the plot. Clare, played earnestly by Sheena May, follows her husband to find more than a run down cliff-top hotel. Instead she discovers murder, intrigue and a dark past forcing her to flee before she becomes buried in The Refuge’s dark history as well. Directed by Gigi Robarts, the strength of this production is its simplicity, the drawn back set (Bennett) and tropey characters keep the audience laughing and hooked. The design reflects the unpretentious nature of this production, with sound (Urban and Gurney) and lighting (Chan) extending the gloomy setting and adding ghostly interventions to successfully, if a little abruptly, frame the performance.
An undeniable strength in every scene is the intrepid Emma, played by Catherine Allison, revealing intention even where the dialogue falls short. While the individual performances are commendable, the one-liners delivered by Jason Denyer and Eliza McClelland stood out in particular as key moments of humour in the laboured premise. Often the relationships between the actors felt underdeveloped, with an over reliance on dialogue to carry the emotional connections. Where the stage design may have been limited, the performance could have filled this space more by embracing the parodic elements of the play and the atmosphere of the space. Although the performers did warm up as the play went on, for such a brief performance the energy level needed to be held from the outset to carry the audience soundly from one moment to another.
Ultimately, this production is an easy evening well spent on a cold February night, entertainment in its simplest form. The Refuge is a moody escape from the jostling pub above: a bite-size thriller to chew on before another drink, to chase it down with.
The Refuge ran at The Barons Court Theatre until 29th February.