As soon as I heard that Things I Know to be True was to be staged at The Pilch this term, I was both intrigued and concerned. A play possibly too recognisable to any ex-Drama A Level student, its 2017 UK tour audience made up primarily of school groups, this is a show which is perhaps more notable for its stylistic make-up than its narrative. Originally a Frantic Assembly production, and thus directorially marked by long sequences of physical theatre and a Nils Frahm musical underscore, I was excited (and worried) to see what director Ellie Cooper would and could do with this piece of theatre – whether she would be constrained by it, or find something new, exciting and innovative to do. For the most part, I was not disappointed.
Founding Fellas Productions’ performance of Things I Know to be True is a tender, truthful and articulate re-telling of the turbulent unravelling of the Price family. Cooper is able to cement her own directorial originality onto a simple and starkly lit studio stage whilst also paying homage to the recognisable stylistic trademarks of a Frantic production. This is a production which, for the most part, knows exactly what it is doing and when it needs to be busy or still, loud or quiet, angry or sensitive. With a narrative that tracks the crumbling destruction of a family unit, it is important for a production of this play to navigate the juxtaposing moments of tension and togetherness with an acute tonal awareness, and this is where Cooper’s production as a whole ultimately finds its strength.
I must give particular praise to the performance of Elise Busset, who played the family’s youngest daughter Rosie and whose opening monologue swelled with naturalistic conviction and skilful movement between the wide-eyed joy of naivety and its devastative emotional counterpart. Although Rosie doesn’t necessarily remain the most central character of the play, Busset was constantly captivating and convincing in her performance.
Yet, aside from the many rich monologues, I was most impressed by this cast in their moments of collaboration. I can find very little fault in the whole company’s performance, with their aesthetically curly-haired resemblance matched by a strong unity of chemistry – there was no weak link. Harry Berry’s Bob was a bumbling and endearing figure of a father working to keep his family together, finding resonance in both comedic moments (his down-to-earth responses a welcome contrast to the constant frenzy of the rest of the family) and scenes of intense anger and upset – I was awe-struck by his performance in the final scene.
He was matched well by Maya Jasinska as Fran, a dominant and cutting mother figure, speaking in intense staccato rhythms and acting with either a piercing stare or a tear in her eye. The rest of the Price children must be solidly commended too, with William Ridd Foxton (Mark/Mia), Imogen Honey Strachan (Pip) and Bailey Finchie (Ben) all shining in their characters’ individual moments of chaos and quiet – rarely over-sensationalising the dramatic scenes which seem to accumulate and permeate the façade of a “normal” family life. Of course, Ellie Cooper’s direction also has an important part to play in this success with her carefully choreographed symbolic interludes of physical theatre successfully articulating the emotional state of the characters.
Complimenting the performance, Leeya Patel’s set design was simple yet effective, a landscape of flowerpots and wooden furniture never detracting from the actors but providing a base for their movement. Tara Sallis and Matthew Colpus’ lighting followed in a similarly efficient vein, generally utilising simple warm and cold washes of light. There was certainly room for something more dynamic here, but it was perfectly sound for its use in the performance. Unfortunately, I was slightly bored by the monotony of Melissa Chang’s choice of musical underscoring. Whilst the soundtrack was effective at the start, its repetitiveness searched for a symbolism that it never quite reached. Additionally, though the show did come into its own, you could almost track Cooper’s directorial authority and confidence growing along the path of the narrative. I found some of the opening sequences a little too similar to the Frantic Assembly production, but any worries of a carbon-copy performance were calmed within the first thirty minutes of the show.
I left the theatre in a little bit of a tearful mess, attempting to maintain some form of critical distance whilst also finding myself deeply moved by this play, these characters, those themes and this cast. Whilst it might not be the most revolutionary production to hit the Oxford student theatre stage, one thing I know to be true is that Founding Fellas’ Things I Know to be True is a damn good play.