“London is sinking, there’s constant rain and everyone is trying to escape”. So begins the marketing blurb to David K. O’Hara’s The Upstairs Room being performed at the King’s Head theatre. The impression is that it is a play about an apocalyptic meltdown; perhaps with some sort of political commentary about climate change or nuclear war.
Disappointingly, this isn’t the case. The play, when it finally gets its point across, is an entirely personal story about a man and a woman who meet in the upstairs room of a building, the walls of which keep them safe from the “breakdown and chaos” of the outside world.
James Savin’s production holds our suspense for a while, chiefly through the glorious bombsite of a set, with overturned sofas, toilet roll streaming across the floor and loud, brash pictures hanging from the walls. Naked lightbulbs drop down from the ceiling above both stage and audience, casting a harsh glare onto the stage while dimming the rows of seats. Bizarrely, the bust of a man sits on a shelf upstage, which the character of Gordon refers to as “Hobs” – a referral to someone he knows, but easy to mistake with the philosopher Hobbes and thus baffle the audience completely.
The first 20 minutes or so of the action are also filled with suspense, albeit of a corny, obvious vein. The American Gordon, played self-consciously by Anthony Cozens, is guided around the room by a camp, Jeeves-like figure of a butler (Bret Jones) who tells him he is not allowed to drink alcohol, should refrain from flushing the toilet and can only use the intercom when it gives him a “signal”. It’s all rather like a parody of a cheesy horror film, except it’s not actually a parody, and all just feels a bit odd. Do we laugh? Are we meant to be frightened?
Anthony Cozens is more tolerable with the arrival of fellow “upstairs room” inmate Stella, but this might be because it’s difficult not to turn the judgement onto her. Stella is a bony blonde with mascara streaming down her face and tights ripped to shreds; her zombie-like appearance is a powerful symbol of whatever it is that is going on outside. There is some attempt here at mystery, but unfortunately her affected Queen’s English and fairytales of life in Hampstead land her more in the realm of Peaches Geldof than a damsel in distress. Liza Callinicos is visually perfect for the part, but brings very little life to her performance, even, at one point, smirking in what is I presume supposed to be a poignant scene. The chemistry between her and Cozens is non-existent and their relationship jumps from one extreme emotion to another without much visible development.
The overall impression of the play is one of confusion. Getting a grasp of the plot is near-impossible until the final revelation at the end, which seems totally out of the blue. What is meant to shock and provoke the audience only inspires raised eyebrows, as Gordon lies on the floor screaming and crying.
It has to be mentioned that dynamic Lucy Wray as Iris is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise flat acting, but her minor and in fact rather pointless part fails to inject much life, or even sense, into this production.