Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Theatre review: The Collector

Even with the Old Vic Tunnels long gone there seems no end to the amount of railway arches under Waterloo Station being used as theatres. The network of performance spaces known as The Vaults have colonised another tunnel down the road, now confusingly christened The Vault Theatre, and a dingy kind of space is apt for Mark Healey's adaptation of John Fowles' The Collector. The setting is a large basement kitted out in mismatched old furniture, the cellar of a remote 17th century farmhouse bought by Frederick Clegg (Daniel Portman) after winning millions in the lottery. Working class, poorly educated and socially awkward, the money has opened up possibilities for him, but he's gone straight for the darkest possible interpretation of this: He's been obsessed with art student Miranda Grey (Lily Loveless) for months, and can now collect her.

Frederick's only pastime before his lottery win was collecting butterflies and he approaches Miranda in the same way, abducting her and keeping her in the basement room where he can look at her whenever he likes.

But he's not used to talking to girls he fancies, so while he's clearly the one in charge here, Miranda uses his inexperience to get the upper hand, and try to use it as a means of escape. So despite the horrific scenario, the first hour of The Collector plays out surprisingly affably, indeed too much so: The four weeks that the two initially agree Miranda will stay as a "guest" quickly run out and it's obvious Frederick won't be happy to keep his promise when the time's up, but Joe Hufton's production has no real urgency in finding the threatening side under the social awkwardness. It's only when Miranda makes the mistake of trying to appeal directly to her captor's repressed sexuality that things start to get dark.

Despite this, and a leaden turn from Loveless that only slightly comes to life as the play moves on, the two-hander isn't actually a slog. Its biggest problem is anachronism though: For the second time in a week I got the impression that getting period props on a budget had caused problems, as the story's been nominally set in the present day - Frederick records his narration on his phone and buys CDs of 21st-century music to keep Miranda entertained - but Max Dorey's set of a room the collector has supposedly just had done up is mostly old-fashioned furniture, with incongruous stockpiles of modern groceries.

But the biggest anachronisms, and the biggest clue that the modern setting was a last-minute decision, come in the script. Everything from the way class obsesses Frederick to the precise kind of sexual hangups he's ended up with belong in the book's early-1960s origins and don't ring true for someone who grew up in 21st century London. Miranda correcting his grammar but not objecting when he keeps calling his disabled cousin "the spastic" is also firmly of its time, while the idea that he can blackmail a millennial woman because he has nude photos of her she doesn't want the police to see is frankly ludicrous.

It's a shame because they do say the past can illuminate the present, and Frederick's victim-blaming is one aspect that really stands out as an attitude that belongs in the Fifties but refuses to stay there, but muddling the time period also muddies the message. And between Portman holding back his character's dark side too long, and Loveless forgetting to make hers scared, the potential for psychological horror is also wasted. The evening doesn't drag but The Collector raises more questions about what it might have been than what it is, not a disaster but certainly a missed opportunity.

The Collector by Mark Healey, based on the novel by John Fowles, is booking until the 28th of August at The Vault Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

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