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Party Trap review at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – ‘formally audacious’

Zara Plessard and Simon Hepworth in Party Trap at Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Photo; Alex Brenner

Constraints can, on occasion, be liberating. Poet and performer Ross Sutherland clearly relishes the creative alchemy that can result from placing a set of rules and limitations on his writing. Party Trap, his first play, is written in palindrome form. The first line of dialogue is the same as the last line of dialogue and the whole play is arranged in two mirrored halves.

Sir David Bradley is a famous journalist and the host of a popular current affairs show. When he interviews MP Amanda Barkham live on air the balance of power gradually begins to shift. She ends up being the one asking the questions. She ends up in control. At the crucial moment, when they switch places, the script also flips, folding back on itself.

As the scenario becomes more nightmare-like and violent, there’s a sense of anticipation in waiting to see how Sutherland will deploy certain lines. Party Trap is audacious in its ambition, and frequently ingenious in its focus on symmetry and mirrors (I’d love to read it). But the format ends up limiting its capacity for insight and its impact as a piece of theatre. There’s nowhere for it to turn but back to the beginning and Rob Watt’s production struggles with this at times. And though, in Simon Hepworth and Zara Plessard, he has two actors who can handle the language, the lines don’t have a natural dramatic flow and the whole thing has a strange, staccato quality.

In Sutherland’s earlier solo show, Standby for Tape Back-Up, his willingness to experiment resulted in something truly exceptional. He remains one of the most exciting artists around, endlessly inventive and self-testing, a true adventurer in form, even if this particular experiment doesn’t quite pay off.

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Ross Sutherland's thrillingly ambitious, if dramatically unsatisfying, palindrome play