Over the past few years, Epsilon Productions have been making quite a splash with some powerful, high quality work. In particular, their production of 'Extremities' in 2011 garnered a number of award nominations and considerable, well-deserved critical acclaim. For some companies, that unusual and compelling play might have been the pinnacle of achievement, but Epsilon have managed to pull a dramatic rabbit out of the hat with another distinctive and intriguing play which reunites the pairing of Angela Bull and John Schumacher from 'Extremities'. 'Skin Tight' has been toured over the past year or so around the country which has obviously afforded the opportunity to hone performances and all the other aspects of the production – and well-honed it certainly is. It's now landed at the impressively-appointed, newly-opened Park Theatre, handily located just a stone's throw from Finsbury Park tube.
Inspired by the poems 'The Magpies' by Denis Glover, and 'Baptism by River Water' by Sam Hunt, 'Skin Tight' is essentially a love story. In fact, it turns out to be rather more than just a simple love story, and it is most certainly not the kind of mushy romance to be found in some films or novels. Moreover, it doesn't seem at all like a love story in the first few moments of the action. When we first encounter John Schumacher's Tom and Angela Bull's Elizabeth, they hurl themselves at each other from opposite sides of the acting area and commence a savage and brutal fight. Hardly, one might think, the actions of lovers. And before you start leaping to some imaginative conclusions, this fight is not some kind of sexual play-fight, not at least on the face of it. Actually it is quite a distance from anything that might be described as 'play'. At one point the pair land blows on each other which send cracks ringing round the room in a disturbingly authentic manner.
Elizabeth and Tom are married. They have a daughter called Kitty, but we never see her, even though they anticipate her imminent arrival. Elizabeth seems to be going somewhere, but we don't learn where until the final scene. What we do discover is how they met, how Tom fought in a war and suffered horribly from the aftermath, and how they ran a farm together until financial circumstances transferred ownership to the bank. What we really learn is that these are two ordinary, hard-working people who have faced together the trials and tribulations of life – including arguments, fights, dalliances and all the other stuff that is part of it - and that they have done so by loving and trusting another human being completely.
It's perhaps no surprise that Angela Bull and John Schumacher have been teamed-up in these roles given the nature of their last production together. The action here requires trust between the two actors on a level which is quite staggering, and I am not sure that many actors could cope with the exhausting and hugely challenging physical demands. And those don't only stem from the initial, ferocious fight scene. Though I won't give away too many details, there is a later scene involving a sharp instrument which requires incredible timing and amazing trust between these two actors and which had the audience open-mouthed and sitting on the edge of their seats almost unable to breathe. Wonderful, though nerve-wracking stuff. Both actors here are really on top form, working more like a joint character rather than individual ones, as indeed the concept implies. I found myself particularly moved by John Schumacher's affecting reactions when the pair are talking about his wartime experiences, but there is so much to enjoy here in two very finely-crafted and enormously creditable performances.
This is a consummately professional and exceptional production on every level – the kind of 'seamless whole' artists from many areas of the visual and creative media strive to achieve. Jemma Gross's direction is sensitive, perceptive and brave, lending real dignity to this pair of rather ordinary people, and avoiding sentimentality in spite of the sadness which underpins the ending. There's evocative and touching music composed by Gareth Jones, and Dan Styles also deserves special mention for his stunningly realistic fight direction. And Jessamy Willson-Pepper's subtle design is intelligently simple and unobtrusive, but cleverly pervasive.
Short at just over an hour, 'Skin Tight' nonetheless has the dramatic meat of much longer offerings. Gary Henderson's inventive script is sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes very funny, but also emotionally gripping. Overall, this is a striking and superb production from Jemma Gross and Epsilon.