It takes a brave actor to do a one-man show, especially when that show is about grief and despair. To convey the intensity and authenticity demanded by such a show requires an excellent script, superb pacing, artful stage direction and a strong, convincing performance. I'd like to say Cold Comfort's bravery pays off, but unfortunately it simply doesn't.
Cold Comfort is a story about a man who hasn't seen his father in 15 years and has just heard from a guy in the pub that his father has died. Returning to Belfast upon hearing the news, he sits by his father's coffin and has a conversation with him in which he faces his demons. It's a good premise for a play and the eerie, oppressive silences provide a good dramatic backdrop from which to tell a powerful story of childhood rejection, loss and emotional starvation carried through into a life of loneliness and defiant desperation.
But it just doesn't work. David Rock's portrayal of this hopeless man, Kevin Toner, is not convincing enough for this reviewer, especially when the whole show pivots on the believability of his performance. The whole show is his performance. His pacing is awkward and the tension, which should slowly ramp up as the show rolls on, remains relatively flat throughout. The eerie, awkward and oppressive silences, which should be Rock's dramatic ally, end up turning against him, sapping the show of strength and swallowing up Rock's performance.
Silence is in fact the theme of the show. The first few minutes see Toner simply standing in a sparsely decorated room, empty save for the open coffin containing his father, as he silently contemplates everything that has brought him to this moment. Silence is what Toner rails against throughout the play. Silence from his father who never said what he was thinking and never expressed his emotions. Silence from his mother who walked out when he was only 9 and never explained why. It is a story about things left unsaid, and Toner, here, now, in this place, alone, finally saying them.
It's somewhat baffling that Rock does not make better use of such latent dramatic tension. Toner's mother and his ex-wife who left him are represented on stage by empty chairs with whom Toner converses and rearranges as the family dynamic shifts. But while this is a good staging device, it does not have the flow of natural conversation. They reply to him in his head but he replies out loud before enough time has passed for them to have said what they did. In these moments there is not enough use of silence but in other moments when Toner is struggling inaudibly with the thoughts in his head there is too much. This combined with Rock's over-reliance on a bottle as a prop is jarring, awkward and snaps the audience back to reality. The other characters on stage cease to become people and just become chairs again on a mostly empty set with a plastic dummy in a coffin. The drama is lost.
Similarly, without variances in overall tension, the play drags on. We learn early on of the central tragedy of Toner's childhood - his mother walking out on the family. After that it feels like the story stalls and covers the same ground for too long, but whether this is a flaw in Owen McCafferty's script or Rock's performance is hard to tell. It all builds up to a genuinely dramatic moment in which Toner unleashes 15 years of pent-up rage at his father, but given the lack of increasing tension in the performance until then, this moment appears out of the blue and actually comes across as comical rather than what it's supposed to be - the final self-destructive outburst before the primal and pathetic nadir of Toner's lifelong misery. The best opportunity in the whole play to use silence, after Toner realises what he has done, is lost in a flash as Rock rushes to deliver the next line.
Overall, a disappointing experience, the moreso because it had so much potential. Cold Comfort indeed.
Chapel Off Chapel and BoomShanka! Productions present
by Owen McCafferty
Directed by Brendan Rock
Venue: Chapel Off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Dates: 26 Nov - 6 Dec, 2009
Times: 8pm; 6pm Sun
Tickets: $25 /$20 Concession (+ transaction fee)