This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 5 May 2015.
When I spoke to writer Sami Ibrahim about Bruised Pear Bleeding, the new ‘rehearsed reading’ detailing a blacker-than-black farce set during the English civil war, he was pretty frank about the fact it wasn’t finished yet. Having seen the preview, I can confirm that: there are clearly a fair few things to iron out before the performance this Friday. But what’s equally clear is that Ibrahim has written a delightfully dark, sickly funny and incredibly powerful script, and that he has managed to assemble a phenomenal troupe of actors.
The play involves a group of travelling actors, wandering between English villages during the dying days of the civil war, as Charles I makes his way to his inevitable appointment on the scaffold. It centres on a young actress, played by Ali Ackland-Snow, and the various advances made on her by her odious director, played by Jack Taylor. From there the play goes to some incredibly dark places, including some very nasty conjuring tricks, a rehearsal that goes horribly awry, and an awkward chat with a professional gravedigger and part-time con-merchant.
You often see comedies described as screamingly funny, and here it’s particularly appropriate- there are a number of great comic set pieces, and the dialogue is packed with brilliant one-liners (“You don’t appreciate the thrill of a cemetery?”), but the play is also deeply horrifying. Surreal and disturbing imagery pervades the play, with highlights including an awkward priest inviting a woman “back to crypt”, and a doctor uprooting a mandrake, represented by a screaming head rising steadily upwards. The results are bizarre and hilarious, but also deeply disturbing, and Bruised Pear Bleeding treads a fine line between psychedelia and pantomime. The play is characterised by a constant sense of unease and disorientation- every time you think you understand it, it changes out from under you, making for an experience which you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Of course, material like this often lives and dies on the strength of its cast- so far things look promising on that front. Jack Taylor is a wonderfully slimy leading man, delivering his monstrous monologues with a sneering relish, and demonstrating a good knack for timing comic lines. Ali Ackland-Snow is similarly good, with an excellent stage presence and skill at delivering the trickier emotional speeches, even if she does occasionally struggle with the rapid shifts in tone the role requires. The supporting cast are solid, though few of them get much of a chance to stand out amidst all the weirdness.
Bruised Pear Bleeding looks to be a thoroughly weird, deeply engrossing piece of drama, and a bold experiment from one of Oxford’s less prominent playhouses.