REVIEW: Zones, Sarah Watson

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6 October 2019

Gala Studio

Review by Bessie Yuill

Sometimes rehearsed readings of a play can suffer, without production values enhancing the script, leaving  the audience feeling stranded in boring, well-trod territory. This was not the case on Sunday afternoon.

Zones by Gateshead playwright Sarah Watson, overflows with vivid ideas, fleshed out by semi-autobiographical details. Four actors and the Artistic Director of Live Theatre, Joe Douglas, triumphantly brought this tale of homelessness and addiction to life.

The central concept, which perhaps is too striking to be given away here, makes an addiction to reliving past trauma literal – the compulsion to ask ‘what if my dysfunctional childhood had gone differently?’ is tied to a dependence on pills. The difficulty that addicts have in discerning real memories from false ones becomes a side effect of the fictional Zones; grim realities are presented through a fun house mirror of science fiction.

The relationship between the central siblings who journey into this tangled mess of memory and narcotics, Carl and Amy, is both loving and full of frustrated disagreements. Above all, however, they are a team in the face of cruelty, neglect and loneliness. The plot’s lynch pin, a sinister man with a briefcase and an ambiguous contract, is never fully explained, but the seediness of his whole operation underlines how vulnerable Amy and Carl are. They are either treated as invisible or regarded as vermin by the official authorities, so they become an open target for more unscrupulous types.

The play is probably at its most inspired during inventive comic vignettes that ring true to the reality of sleeping rough as an addict. One scene adopts the tone of a David Attenborough nature documentary, imagining Amy as scavenger and the people walking by on the streets as her prey. She explains the body language of a passer-by she’s trying to grift, with the assured tone of an expert. In another, the script becomes a scientific lesson during a scene of ingesting pills: as Amy notes, “most addicts are chemists.” The writing carries a real confidence at moments like these, balancing dark humour with authentic observations.

Another interesting touch is the non-chronological structure, bringing back motifs in a way that successfully builds mystery. A marble introduced early on, for example, resurfaces later as evidence of the Zones‘ fantastical capabilities. The juggling of tones and timelines is helped by the charismatic main character, whose colloquialisms guide you through the more surreal moments.

Even though it’s still being developed (audience members were asked for feedback at the end) the script thrums with potential. You can’t help but feel that you’re witnessing something exciting on the verge of being discovered. And even in a rehearsed reading, Watson’s writing makes it very hard to look away.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.

Photo Copyright: Richard Kenworthy