The Music Box, a new play by Cambridge University’s Emma Stirling is not only bad, but bad for theatre. It’s a pale-faced, meaning-drained zombie of a production, pretentious in its delivery, lacklustre in its aims, and dull in its absurdity.
The setting is a loosely post-apocalyptic environment, with children scampering around the stage, drugged and dopey due to their parents, a silent pair who visit them mutely each night to administer a good dose of control. It gestures towards psychological depth without really having any. In fact the defining quality of The Music Box is its shallowness. It’s not so much a play as the walking, talking equivalent of a pretentious student photoshoot: vacuous, tasteless, oppressively undemanding. Accordingly, it’s also beautifully framed, with exquisite sketches lining the walls and a well composed mobile that helps create a satisfying pink, blue, and grey pallet.
This feeling is cemented in the heavy, gravelly mixture of script and acting. The writing is the most important factor and there is a horrible feeling of writer-actor trust being broken in the parroting of what is – for the most part – turgid dialogue. ‘Why don’t you take your coat off?’ one character asks. ‘Does it bother you?’ the other answers. ‘You know it does’. And then mere awkwardness becomes almost comic distraction with the underwhelming resolution: ‘I’m not like them’. The stunted, near-nonsensical dialogue is matched on the macrocosmic level with a plot that flails rather than swims and may as well tread water for its lack of true emotional resolution.
It’s all delivered in a breathless, desperate style as if every emotion were melted into one generic gush. Many of the flaws common in student acting are present, with father-figure ‘the Doctor’ – Pete Skidmore – and prancing ‘Oliver’ – James Evans – especially bad at movement, so that every leg-line is deployed as though it creeps on thick carpet. The only good actor in the set is actually Stirling herself, who carries her own writing a little lighter than the other characters. And there are glimmers of hope in Oliver Marsh, whose bounding, lively impression of a bear-cub has the twinges of depravity that hint at a talent firmly suppressed by Skidmore and Stirling’s direction.
In the closing duologue there are sparks that light up briefly the reason Stirling’s writing has – according to the programme – won some unspecified awards. However, it doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. Why are these parents drugging their children? What is outside the door? And why should we care? The only question The Music Box has to answer to save it from self-indulgence is the last one. Instead it mutely dances around it like a music box ballerina.