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Review - Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse

Knowledge of Peter Strickland's film isn't necessary to appreciate this interpretation of Berberian Sound Studio for the Donmar Warehouse. Indeed, the concept seems made for this immersive medium, and sound designer-turned-director Tom Scutt's production is wholly satisfying as a piece of boundary-pushing theatre.

Gilderoy (Tom Brooke) is a sound engineer from Dorking; a mummy's boy with a nervous disposition, a sweater vest, and a cherished sound credit on the pastoral hit 'The Mysteries of Box Hill'. He is invited by the elusive Santini (Luke Pasqualino) to Italy to bring his latest low-budget horror film to its full auditory potential. Gilderoy arrives at the studio, where foley artists Massimo and Massimo (Tom Espiner and Hemi Yeroham) prance across the room in women's clothing and mutilate all manner of legumes to create the soundtrack to Santini's vision. The slapstick choreography is very funny, and Brooke is superb in conveying the most endearing English sensibility opposite his eccentric Italian colleagues.

We hear almost as much Italian as English in the play, and for the most part it skillfully negotiates its dual nationality. Only once when Gilderoy is stuck at a linguistic impasse with one of the voice-over artists does this affect the pace of the scene. Otherwise, the interplay between the two cultures is a great comedic tool.

It descends into a darker realm, however, when Gilderoy is tasked with conceiving the soundtrack to the film's climax; an ethically dubious scene where a woman is tortured by an as yet undefined instrument named 'the indelible kiss'. (Indeed this question of ethics is raised as an important theme, but exactly what writer Joel Horwood wishes to conclude about misogyny in the name of art is not entirely clear.) Gilderoy becomes obsessed by this undertaking, which drives him to crazed isolation. His pursuit of the perfect sound knows no bounds, and Brooke elicits audible gasps from the audience as his microphone fills the room with the sound of Gilderoy peeling off his own thumbnail.

This is the power of Ben and Max Ringham's sound design. We never do see so much as a shot from Santini's film, and yet it terrifies us. Eventually, celery sticks, twisted and snapped, cease to be an amusing prop. This is the sound of evil, forcing us to face our most disturbing fantasies of the indelible kiss.

Lee Curran's lighting design is particularly effective in portraying Gilderoy's deterioration. A spotlight isolating Gilderoy from the world around him; his face illuminated red as he is driven mad by a medley of horrific sounds; an eerie green light casting doubt over whether the woman in the vocal booth is real or a sinister apparition; and well-timed blackouts leave the audience feeling totally exposed.

This is a technically impressive production that practices what it preaches, with the play's soundscape eliciting visceral reactions from its audience and creating a distinct atmosphere. However, there are moments of some confusion in this play that calls into question the boundaries between art and reality, and so clarity over the play's narrative point of view would help the audience cut through the noise.

Berberian Sound Studio is at the Donmar Warehouse until 8th February.

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