By David Brown
Susan O’Toole can be congratulated for taking on a challenging script that addresses a difficult issue, rather than the frothier fare often offered up by amateur theatre groups. Keep Everything You Love charts the journey taken by Emma and Brett, two teenagers devastated by the suicide of their friend Jack.
I must admit to feeling nervous before the show began. A script such as this, in the hands of inexperienced actors, could quickly turn into agonising melodrama. But, thanks largely to the committed gutsy performances of its young cast, this production pulls it off. Susan O’Toole, with assistant director Declan Dickinson, appears to have collaborated closely with her actors and the mutual trust and confidence shines through in the show.
In the first moments of the play, I had my doubts about Tom Yaxley, but he soon settled into a convincing, sensitive portrayal of Brett—the ‘super-jock’ who struggles with unanswerable questions left in the wake of his mate’s death. Anna McGahan gives an assured performance as Emma, the ‘retentive’ over-achiever we can all recognise. Although these characters are, in some senses, stereotypical, both actors succeed in imbuing them with real subjectivities which endear them to the audience. Both Yaxley and McGahan give impressive performances for young actors – they really listen to each other onstage and this ensures that their characters’ interactions are believable and textured. Vocally, both can be heard clearly (except, at times, when they had to compete with recorded sound, but I’ll get to that shortly), though McGahan needs to guard against her tendency to become overly shrill during emotional scenes.
The actors’ work is made difficult by two main factors. Firstly, the production uses projected sequences of animation and words to facilitate the now-absent character of Jack. While the visuals – from the original production of the play – succeed in giving the audience an idea of Jack, the reckless, charismatic artist might have been like, unfortunately the repeated use of the same music over the images grates. The volume and nature of the sound also hinders the audibility of the actors’ dialogue and thus breaks the flow of action. Second, the set design bothered me. The two beds that dominate the stage are rarely used, and the actors are left with little else to aid the dynamics of their interaction. While budget constraints are a limitation in this kind of theatre, something as simple and versatile as scaffolding, for instance, could have added multiple levels and galvanised the performances. The actors seem at a loss sometimes in terms of where to move and what to do with their hands. This is a wordy play, and the restrictions of the set mean that the audience spend too much time watching ‘talking heads’. And one last issue that could easily be remedied: the sketchbook Jack leaves behind after his death. This prop is a central plot element and it is simply too thin (not to mention noticeably blank) to be convincingly authentic.
Despite these problematic aspects of the production, I was pleasantly surprised by its quality. Hopefully more young people will see it during its run (there weren’t many on the night I went), as they are clearly the target audience of the play’s message. The best thing about Keep Everything You Love: solid, courageous performances by promising young actors.
Directed by Susan O’Toole
Playing until 24 July. July 8 – July 24. Sundays at 6:30pm. Mondays – Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Running time: 70 minutes