The Tab reviews ‘I’m Having a Wonderful Time in BADEN-BADEN’
A mesmerising and brave production
The gracefully simple concept of this play was delivered with poise. Through the character of Allie, student writer Jenny O’Sullivan delves into the depths of the way we process isolation and despair, and they do so in a brave and experimental manner that merits great praise. Their writing oscillates between the conversational and humourous to the strikingly lyrical and touching, and Amelia Hills (playing Allie) does their writing the full justice it deserves.
Hills carries the play through its more challenging restless moments, mesmerising the audience in the way they channel the full range of emotions and fluctuating moods in every gesture and expression. Alone onstage for the full duration, they draw us in, making us all paradoxically complicit in their isolation as we feel the truth of the words they laugh off. Their absolute mastery of the space and tone of the play is highly commendable, and the intimacy they achieve with the audience is one of the real strengths of the production.
The style of the play takes adjusting to as we enter from frantic lives into a space of stasis and stagnation. The opening sequence of the play acclimatises us to this world of internal monotony through a painstaking viewing of Allie’s actions on arriving into the pointedly unadorned space. We are constantly expectant, awaiting a word but frustrated by every inaudible mutter, every half word and anticlimactic gesture as they simply fret around the space before eventually flinging themselves into bed. And the genius of the play is that this tenseness, this frantic anticipatory energy is something that is channelled from the stage into the audience with remarkable skill. We truly feel what Allie feels, both stifled by and inexplicably dependent on the room which holds us all.
There is real poeticism behind O'Sullivan's writing, some of the standout moments being lines of exquisite beauty, and others holding deeper resonances, such as when Allie says of their spots, "they go deeper than you think. These horrors that lie beneath my skin." But what is remarkable is that they also know where to hold back and relish the comic possibilities of understatement or clunky phrasing: in one of their post cards, Allie remarks, "I saw a red squirrel today. [long pause.] It was red." Such moments of sheer despair at the ludicrous misery of their situation are some of the most powerful, and are demonstrative of some incredibly skilful writing.
The choice to include a series of abstract projections was an inspired one. They highlighted and counterpointed Hills’s performance, adding a fluidity to the tonal shifts. Without being distracting, the images of tangerines bobbing in water and fleeting fragments of Allie’s laughter in a sunny place create a space for the unspoken in an arresting, thought-provoking way. We never know whether these are the projections of their mind or simply abstract expressions elaborating on the atmosphere. This very ambiguity is what makes them so stunning.
Much of the cinematography is hypnotic, and counterpointed beautifully by a reflection in the lighting onstage. There are several moments where the lighting really impresses, emphasising moments of reflection, longing, and revelation in an understated way that should not be overlooked. Likewise, the use of sound was also incredibly well thought through. The play’s focus is on the internal, and so it is very fitting that the only noises (other than Allie’s voice) come from an obtrusive external world which seems intent on disrupting their stability.
A potential issue of the production was the way in which the audience is meant to interact with this immersive depiction of inertia. Evidently, a central part of the concept is to illustrate the effects of being entirely trapped by an impersonal, foreign environment, but this can be both a triumph and a challenge. There are moments, especially with the monotonous rise and fall of the lights to illustrate time passing, when we feel this restlessness perhaps too much. Evidently, this could be seen as a way of entirely immersing us in the state of mind of the main character, but as a central conceit, this dissatisfaction and despair can be problematic for the audience. This is a small issue, which by no means eclipses the play, but it could potentially have been tackled by a heightened awareness of moments prone to flag, and even more efforts invested into counteracting these.
Overall I was incredibly impressed by the originality of the production. So many stylised elements are incorporated seamlessly, and the director does not hold back in any way. We go beyond the boundaries of the expected, and that is very exciting.