Stunning from beginning to end The Convert is perhaps the most remarkable piece of theatre ever staged at Above The Stag in Vauxhall and that is no disrespect to the many fine productions that have graced this venue. This work, however, is in a league of its own.
chilling, frightening and hair-raising
The latest in high-resolution LED technology forms a seamless screen that fills the rear wall of the theatre. We have entered The Facility; a dystopian world that even Orwell might have found hard to imagine. The display is like a giant console that might be used to play games, divided into six sections, but here the results of body and brain scans can be seen along with a heartbeat; the sort of stuff that might be observed in any hospital for the benefit of patients, but this is not designed with them in mind. The other cells contain hair-raising material that gives the game away. Their messages portend the darkness that is to come. A brief history of Eugen Steinach is rolled out, telling of his post-WW1 attempts to change the sexual orientation of homosexual men by testicular transplants. We are introduced to the vocabulary of further techniques used in pursuit of conversion: Electric Shock; Emetic Drugs; Masturbatory Reconditioning; Gender Realignment; Ice Pick Lobotomies and Chemical Castration. It's stomach-churning before the play even begins.
The great screen is just one aspect of the overall vision for The Convert in which the collaboration of creatives is evident throughout. George J C Reeve’s video designs are a work of art in themselves and reach their own climax towards the end that heralds the denouement. His achievements harmonise with an equally imaginative sound design by Paul Gavin and lighting design by Joe Thomas. The clinically simple set by David Shields is enhanced by each of these elements to a create dark, brooding atmosphere in futuristic style. It could be a spaceship, but instead is simply The Facility with two spartan beds that seem more akin to mortuary slabs and an interview table electrically wired to encourage compliant answers and correct responses.
In the outside world, society requires people to conform and live up to its expectations. Deviation from the norms is unacceptable and deviants such as homosexuals must be ‘corrected’. Hence Alix (Nick Mower) and Marcus (Sam Goodchild) find themselves participants in activities of The Facility, subject to questioning, interrogation, indoctrination and torture. Conducting all of this is the Arbiter, played by the play’s author Ben Kavanaugh. The terms of their incarceration are simple: be cured and return from whence they came; fail and be sent to the Other Place, separated forever from family and friends.
Mower, in his professional debut, appears as a schoolboy trying to please his teacher, whilst knowing all the time that what his teaching is telling him contradicts everything he believes to be true, right down to his own existence and nature. He portrays the inner torment as much as he demonstrates the agony of the physical abuse; a performance that is powerful, yet full of sensitivity; rebellious yet accepting. Marcus has been in The Facility for some time; he’s lost track of how long. Goodchild plays the experienced, more knowing inmate, guiding Alix through events, leading discussions and encouraging Alix to do well, yet also manifesting his vulnerability. They are well-matched cellmates. On the surface, Kavanagh shows the Arbiter to be a reasonable, almost charming man, at times given to humour, but his true character comes out when faced with non-compliance and disagreement. Then his vicious and brutal nature takes over and we see him for the bully he truly is.
Director Gene David Kirk has created a triumph with the harrowing content of The Convert. It's not easy to watch, but he has devised an the experience that is breathtakingly rewarding. I spent the interval feeling completely numb, as though I too were a captive in The Facility. It’s chilling, frightening and hair-raising; remarkable for its immediacy and the sustained performances of its cast; for a script that remains tightly focussed, unwaveringly leading us along a path of unending doom before suddenly turning on itself with twists worthy of a detective story. Kirk engineers every moment of this to maximum effect.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel or just a vast black hole; is there hope or endless despair? What will become of Alix and Marcus and what will be left of them? Finding those answers is a must and they might be what you expect. There is only one way to find out. You simply must see this play.