The Shadows by Lara Biller was a dark comedy that explored what went on behind the scenes in a nightmare Drama Society, while also functioning as social commentary. It was directed by Sophia Rosen-Fouladi and Dolly Busby and produced by Shirley Yang as part of the MIFTA Season.
The stage at the King’s Arms Theatre was no longer a stage. Rather, it was backstage for the majority of the show, bare except for a props table and a walkie talkie. We were introduced to three stage hands; excitable and enthusiastic Sam (Cecilia Alfonso-Eaton) and Jonny (Frank Wilson-Caines), and bored Esther (Lara Paul), who would rather be in bed.
The play they were working on was a ridiculous melodrama about gangsters set in the 1920s. The lead actors in this play-within-a-play were Rupert (Harry Robson) and India (Nell Bevan). Both were posh and towered over the stagehands. In their formal costumes, they seemed to represent the richest in society as a whole. Sam and Jonny were in awe of them and viewed them as gods.
Esther was not so impressed, nor was she a fan of the script. She voiced her disapproval of the lack of named female characters in the play. This was a conversation I have definitely had in the past. Drama departments are female-heavy yet the industry itself is male-dominated and there are so few female roles for so many actresses.
When Esther stood up to Rupert about his mistreatment of the backstage crew, he punched her in the face. A clever decision was to not show the delivery of the blow. Instead, as Rupert stepped towards Esther, there was a blackout, followed by us hearing the aftermath of the injury and seeing Esther return at the end with a black eye.
This moment doubled as a commentary on sexism. In their prior interactions, there seemed to be sexual tension between Rupert and Esther or at least attraction on his part. His violence was then also the result of a man being rejected by a woman.
I could definitely see a character like India existing, if in a less exaggerated form. She lounged around in her Drama Society committee hoodie backstage and would do anything to have the show go on.
However, I find it difficult to believe a boy like Rupert who says “I’m not afraid to hit a girl, I’m not a sexist,” and calls giving equal parts “Communism”, could thrive in a Drama Society. Certainly, they exist in universities, but it is unlikely they would have an interest in drama, nor that a Drama Society would be interested in them.
As always, Biller’s writing was as intricate and clever as it was funny. At one point, Sam and Jonny engaged in a fight with plastic swords, something all too familiar to those of us who have been in plays as we wait backstage. At another, Jonny questioned whether it was ‘penises’ or ‘penii’.
In the end, it was demonstrated just how important the backstage team are to the running of a play. The backstage team finally decided to protest. As Rupert and India performed their final scene, the lights started flashing different colours, while a song played too loudly for anyone to hear the dialogue. Then Esther, Sam and Jonny walked on during the scene to take off all of the props. The backstage crew, although unseen, are the underappreciated backbone of any production, which would not be possible without them.
The show captured the intricacies of life as a drama student. It was often insightful. It is true that, as students we often forget the societies we are part in are just an activity and is not what we are at university for.
Before the show began, we were instructed by the creative team to bring donations for a food bank. This reminded us that the show was about more than just a Drama Society and worked as a wider metaphor for society itself; the richest step on the backs of the underprivileged to get to where they are. Most of their success is due to people we never see or hear about, and they would be nothing without them.
All of the cast were wonderfully natural in their roles but credit must be given to Alfonso-Eaton for stepping in just nine days before opening night to play Sam. She was lively, funny and fitted so well with the rest of the cast that had I not read the back of the programme, I never would have known she was a new addition.