Review: Zero at the Alma Tavern

A gripping piece of new writing, Zero is a one woman monologue written by Rachel Ruth Kelly, heading to the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is a review of its first night of previews at the Alma Tavern Theatre, in Bristol. 
Beth tells a story that grips everyone who stumbles upon it, as she takes a breather from her 21st birthday party. The stage is bare as the words tumble out and a universe is created around the petite blonde in the sparkly dress.
In this darkly intimate monologue, Rachel Ruth Kelly writes about love, loss, giving up and growing up with a poignancy that stays with you long after the show has ended. In just over an hour the audience meets Beth as well as catching glimpses of those who are close to her, through a brilliant portrayal by Grace Vance.
It is an immense feat, and Vance owns the stage with control as she plays Beth, and 9 other characters. Through endless lines pouring out that successfully intertwine storytelling, confessions, heartbreak and humour, her confidence only waivers when the direction requires it. She is transformed, as she becomes in turn mother, sister, therapist, friend, and him.
He is at the centre of the show, he is the reason she is outside and the reason that she is telling us this story. There is a clear awareness and measure in the script, as the story within the narrative that makes the show and breaks the girl is gently introduced and sewn into the seams of her essence.
As we hear from Lottie, Mum, Frank and the others we recognize that there is a whole lifetime behind this monologue, which shows only the surface of such a complex character. The most powerful moment comes from Vance’s portrayal of him, when Beth’s pain becomes our pain as “fucking you is like fucking a loaded gun” is said with a cold hostility that still makes me wince now.
What begins as a tipsy release from overbearing family at a party becomes something much bigger while still remaining equally relatable. Zero places itself at the forefront of issues which awfully affect too many people. It juggles an awareness of a media-fuelled blame culture and the conflicts of loving yourself and caring for one another.
The play’s strengths lie in its voice and Kelly’s words, which manage to relate universally, feeling as Beth is talking to each person individually while actually reflecting our own fears and insecurities – even when we don’t want to face them.
The problems then come mostly from the way such a script is dealt with. Although Vance delivers every line without faltering, her nervous body language does at times detract from the truth of her words when a jitter follows a line and a huff closes a confession, regrettably actually diminishing authenticity instead of enhancing it. This then reminds the audience that after all Beth is but a fictional character, portrayed by a very talented actress.
Zero undeniably succeeds in screaming all of our silent fears through its incredibly affecting writing and intelligent relevance
As the story progresses, Beth unravels bit by bit. Her bubbly and enigmatically sarcastic persona gives way to a more heartfelt admission of weakness and the wistful depiction of what remains. Unfortunately, as opposed to displaying the reality of the aftermath for Beth, it is at this moment that the “message” of the show takes over and the narrative feels lost. Where are we again?
The world that was cleverly created by the script does not exist as the party is forgotten, not in favour of the all-consuming performance but by the sudden consciousness of the black box theatre we are in.
The awareness of each extremely talented voice then becomes obvious. An actor shines in her versatility, stamina, charisma and true grit. A director (Sarah Flanagan) displays an understanding of the issues, conveying care and strength to everyone within reach. A writer creates Beth, her world, and the pain and love that lie inside all of us.
However, in a show of this nature, the tangible presence of so many voices does at moments detract from the impact of the message within the story. This does not make it less valid or true, or less skillfully written. It just means that the delivery of the story that breaks Beth in the end does not fulfill its potential of cinching the show as utterly heartbreaking.
She is outside her own birthday party, and as Zero reaches its end, I had almost forgotten. Not because her narrative had taken over, but because the message had by this point overpowered the medium. Did anyone around me feel like this? What would I do if it happened to me? My mind wandered to questions that had been brought a lot closer than I ever thought would be, as Grace Vance left the stage.
Although Zero undeniably succeeds in screaming all of our silent fears, this comes from its incredibly affecting writing and intelligent relevance, more so than through its power as a theatrical fictional entity.
I left the theatre wanting to know more about Beth and her birthday party, while already knowing too much.
★★★☆☆
Review initially written for Epigram. Original piece here 

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