How do you conjure the magic of theatre when Covid-19 limits how many people you can have on stage?
The Watermill Theatre has revamped its 2020 season around this very question, and “Bloodshot” – a show that first appeared at the venue 20 years ago – is the first clue as to what the theatre of tomorrow might look like.
Much like Nick Hornby’s novel “A Long Way Down”, Douglas Post’s play begins with barfly Derek Eveleigh (Simon Slater) on the edge of a sheer drop, deciding whether to leap. Looking up, he notices the audience, and begins to narrate the journey which brought him to this precipice.
It’s a compelling period story rooted firmly in the 1950s – a crime scene photographer, unable to stomach the grisly reality of his job, quits and falls on hard times. But then an anonymous benefactor offers him a unique job – to follow and photograph a beautiful young black woman (portrayed in photographic form by Amanda Wilkin), in exchange for a huge wad of cash.
Who is she? And who’s going to such extreme lengths to keep tabs on her?
Unable to resist the answers (and the money), Derek takes the job…
…and if I say anything more, I’ll spoil things for you.
But suffice to say, such a questionable assignment brings its fair share of complications, and before he knows it Derek is embroiled in the seedy underside of the entertainment business and confronting a variety of musicians and magicians alongside former colleagues from the Met.
It’s a compelling narrative from start to finish, and – all credit to the production team here – the pull of the story is allowed to blossom into a fully realised world through the creative use of background projections and an array of props. In one of my favourite moments, every time Derek snaps a picture of his target, the picture instantly appears on the screen behind him, making us feel as if we’re in the dark room with him.
All the technical marvels surrounding the story would be for nought, however, without a cast of talented actors at its centre. The play is therefore all the more remarkable for the fact that its numerous characters are brought to life solely by actor Simon Slater.
His “main” role as Derek is brilliantly three-dimensional (and made me wonder if this is the sort of whimsical, wisecracking and heartfelt character Oscar Wilde would’ve written if he tried his hand at detective stories) – but in the blink of an eye, Slater transitions to a fully believable Irish comedian, Russian magician (complete with razor-swallowing tricks) and American saxophonist – often acting out both sides of the conversations between them and Everleigh.
Like the best magic tricks, these illusions don’t rely on elaborate preparation – he literally becomes another person with a slight change of posture, and an instrument. To my very great enjoyment, he was as fluent with the latter as his characters – his saxophone playing in particular really capturing the smoky ambience of late-night bars.
Immersion into the half-lit world of the play was actually heightened by the restrictions placed upon the theatre. With a reduced audience size, and social distancing measures enforced via the blood-red ribbons binding up the verboten seats, I really felt like I was one of the last ones standing after a everyone had drunk too much at the local bar and headed home.
It’s worth noting that if (like me) you’re concerned about venturing out into crowded spaces during these infectious times, I felt completely safe all evening – the theatre really have gone out of their way to protect the audience without this ever making you feel restricted or less than comfortable.
It just goes to show that with the right material, the right actor to bring it to life, and the right technical tricks to elevate it into a living, breathing world – socially distanced theatre can still provide a transcendent experience.
“Bloodshot” runs from the 22nd September to the 17th October; tickets are available at https://www.watermill.org.uk.