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Theatre in Review: Killing Time (59E59)

Zoe Mills, Brigit Forsyth. Photo: Darren Bell.

The title of Zoe Mills' play has a double meaning, since the heroine, Hester Brooke, only has a little bit of time left, and she wouldn't mind cutting her small allotment by a considerable amount. A retired cellist, just on the sunny side of seventy, she is dying of cancer; holed up in her flat, she sorts out her things, entertains herself with reality TV and episodes of Midsomer Murders, and guzzles enough wine to guarantee that if the cancer doesn't get her, cirrhosis certainly will. She has two contacts with the outside world: her friend and colleague, George, who checks in regularly via Skype, and Sara, the slightly hapless assistant social worker who keeps turning up, loaded with unwanted advice. Indeed, she greets her fate with a certain cheeky quality. To George, she says, "I always think everyone looks a little like a seventies porn star on Skype," and, presented with flowers by Sara, she remarks, "And, of course, one is grateful it's not a wreath."

But George dies unexpectedly, and the fragile ecosystem of Hester's existence is seriously undermined. Sara has to practically fight her way into the flat and, once there, Hester has little use for the younger woman's bountiful advice. (Among other things, she thinks Hester should continue pursuing music.) Listening to one of Sara's live-for-today speeches, Hester replies, suspiciously, "Isn't that from The Shawshank Redemption?" Indeed, she adds, "I'm a prime candidate for a one-way trip to Switzerland and yet, as much as it amazes you, I'm fine, thank you!"

Brigit Forsyth, who plays Hester, gives this and many other lines the right blend of acid and asperity, but the trouble with Killing Time is that she's right: Her mind is pretty much made up, leaving nowhere for the play to go. After George dies, the focus shifts to Sara, who is at best a sketchily conceived foil for Hester's brusque comments. Just about the only thing we learn about Sara is that people seem to die when she is around. As it happens, she harbors a bigger secret, which explains why her job is on the line and the police have, quite justifiably, taken an interest in her. In truth, Sara is a bit of a train wreck, and, for her character to make any sense, she would need far more exploration than she gets here.

This is rather strange, since Mills, the playwright, also plays Sara, so she has no one but herself to whom she can complain about her thinly written role. She is an appealing presence, to be sure, but both actresses are boxed in by their contrived material, in which little of importance happens for too long. The latter part of Killing Time maneuvers the two women into a mutually beneficial relationship, but the denouement is too pat by half. Overall, this is an enervated affair, barely credible and filled with superficial observations about death and dying that don't mix well with sitcom-style gags about the Jane Fonda Workout and the Brad Pitt film epic, Troy. Little of what happens is credible: Would even a badly trained social worker ask her client, "So, you can actually feel yourself breaking down inside?" It's easy to root for Hester when she replies, "Yes. I think it's called dying. Your point is?"

The director, Antony Eden, is hard-pressed to make anything of this uneventful dramatic endgame. In most respects -- Clancy Flynn's scenery and lighting -- the production design is modest; the exception is the video, with AV design by Flynn and cinematography and video design by Kostis Mousikos. These sequences include the Skype conversations with George, which, as in real life, are filled with freezes and jump cuts, along with imagery of hospital patients and city streets culled from Sara's phone and sequences shot on a video camera of Hester playing her cello and making personal confessions. Harry Linden Johnson's sound design includes various effects, passages of classic music, and excerpts from an original composition by Forsyth.

Part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59, Killing Time has a way of making matters of life and death seem cozy and rather too easily resovled. It's a cup of weak tea when something far stronger is indicated. -- David Barbour

(26 April 2019)

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