Written for Spoonfed:
Under the arches near Southwark Playhouse, Tom Byam Shaw and Lara Rossi, the new cast for the return of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, are locked in a pretty sexy game of chicken. Far from my office-based 9 to 5, this is work for them.
Pacing towards each other, they challenge, intimidate and threaten before a sinister hissing arises as they circle one another with a resoluteness that makes me feel uncomfortable. Their chemistry is seriously impressive considering they’re only in the first week of rehearsals of a play that consistently proves itself to be difficult to describe. Lauded across the board, Tender Napalm is a gloriously metaphorical, funny, uplifting, devastating argument between a man and a woman and it gives you the feeling these characters have been at this urgent impasse before.
That notion of familiarity makes a second viewing of this play very tempting and the casting of Lara and Tom does too. Their lines this morning are steeped in fantasy and they’re surrounded by images of monkeys, grenades, explosions, tropical flowers and on one mood board, a series of dildos shaped like dolphins.
As they dissect the script, Tom is occupied by the sibilance in his lines, aware of the intensity he brings to this role – don’t catch his eye in the street, this guy will just stare right back at you. He is the unnamed Man as Lara is the unnamed Woman in this two-hander and while Jack Gordon gave Man a swagger to contend with, Tom lets his softness take centre stage and David goes about eliciting small bursts of cockiness in his rapidly forming performance.
Similarly, Lara’s physical confidence brings out the boisterous nature beneath Woman’s vulnerability, she has a power in her delivery I didn’t expect. The power and the far away exotic imagery of this conflict are put into context with director David Mercatali’s sage advice as they rehearse a painful but delicate scene. “Arguments exist for different reasons” he explains, “sometimes we need a distraction, sometimes we need to be scared”.
Maybe Tom should be scared. He is at one point tied up in a cave, his only human contact being with the woman who tied him up there in the first place. It’s during the rehearsal of this scene that I get to see what David means when he says “Actors impulses constantly surprise me and in rehearsal rooms, they create the best drama. They can become so immersed in what they’re doing, that what they produce comes from their impulses, it can’t come from direction.”
“This is your chance to create the grotto” he says simply to Lara who’s about to approach the cave “by reacting to your surroundings”. Suddenly there are sticky floors and cramped tunnels in a dark, damp cave with no set designer present and only Lara moving from one end of the room to another. And then one more moment of spontaneous theatrical brilliance before I have to go. I can’t give it away – I don’t even know if it’s staying in the play – but in escaping Lara, Tom flees the cave in a way none of us saw coming.
“The only concern when you see something like that” says David clearly impressed by Tom’s intuition “is that now they have to recreate it. It’s now my job to interpret their choice and make them intellectually understand it so they can do it again in front of an audience.”