Melodrama, properly speaking, is a musical accompaniment to spoken dialogue where the two sorts of sound basically echo each other. We’re so used to it in films and with television drama that we tend to forget that it began in the theatre. The trouble is that the balance is a tricky one to get right, especially in a small studio theatre.
Take the fledgling production from the Fifth Dimension Theatre Company. It’s written and directed by Darrell Jackson with an original score – laced with a liberality of musical quotations – by Michael Gore. Fatal Excuses is a 20th century revenge tragedy rooted in a famous classical Greek drama – I’m not going to tell you which one; you must work that out for yourself. It starts in Jersey about a year after Liberation and ends in London two decades or so later.
Although Jessica (around whom the action revolves) at one point refers to the island under Occupation as having been like a prison, this location – sinister men in gas masks patrolling the auditorium notwithstanding – is irrelevant to the drama unfurling before us. She thinks her soldier husband dead in North Africa and succumbs to a moment of passion with a neighbour’s son. One-night stands, as we all know, can have consequences.
The action weaves between sometimes brutal realism and a sort of stylised symbolic movement. Jessica’s nightmare before the birth of her son as she is enveloped in sheets which alternatively pinion her and bear her up as the men of the cast toss her from one to another until the child materialises as a knotted fabric manikin is very well handled.
With much of the dialogue carried on between just a couple of people in short scenes, the spoken word too often becomes lost in the score and the sound effects. Rachel Chambers as Jessica and Jack Maurice as first the doctor and later the criminal boss both give thoroughly credible performances of their characters. You can see why Lewis, the husband who is played by the writer-director, reacts as he does and why Eden (Glen Dolby)’s skewed view of life and love drives him to end as he does.
Jane McMahon is Marie, not a friend on whom to rely and Roseanna Frascona is Alice, Eden’s girl-friend and – like Simon (Matt Harrison) whose visit of condolence sparks off the action – someone caught up in other people’s problems. I’m still not clear what Houdini really has to do with it all but applaud the enterprise of these East 15 Acting School graduates in mounting such an intense piece of theatre.