Skin Tight

Pleasance Theatre, Islington, London

20/10/2009 - 25/10/2009

Production Details

Writer Gary Henderson

Shaky Isles

Skin Tight
a play about real love

a man and a woman kissing
a woman and a man fighting
a couple in love, making love, leaving love.

From acclaimed New Zealand writer Gary Henderson, Skin Tight is a moving and magical love story, in which a couple dissects their love with fierce poetry and potent physicality.

Performed by Emma Deakin and Sam Webster


Shaky Isles is a company of New Zealand and British theatre makers, based in London, committed to bringing powerful, contemporary writing from Aotearoa/New Zealand to British audiences.

Skin Tight
Pleasance Theatre, Islington
Carpenters Mews, North Road, London
How to find us.

Tuesday 20 – Saturday 24 October 7:45pm
& Sunday 25 October 5:15pm

Tickets: £10 (£8)
Book Tickets Online Now or call 020 7609 1800

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Performed by Emma Deakin and Sam Webster

Theatre ,

Physical intensity

Review by James Hadley 26th Oct 2009

Shaky Isles Theatre can claim to be the leading New Zealand theatre company based in London. They have been presenting readings and stagings of New Zealand plays in some of the city’s Fringe venues since 2006.

They have chosen to stage Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight as their main production of this year, performed by Shaky Isles’ founder Emma Deakin, and company member Samuel Webster, at the Pleasance Theatre, a black box studio theatre in Islington. Ex-pat New Zealander Stella Duffy, best known for her novels, directs, having also previously directed Kikia te Poa and ‘Precious Things’ for Shaky Isles.

I first saw Gary Henderson’s moving theatrical response to Denis Glover’s poem ‘The Magpies’ in the touring production featuring Jed Brophy and Larissa Matheson. Their performances – intense both physically and emotionally – left such a lasting impression that it would perhaps be unfair to compare any new revival with, especially given the rose-tinting of memory.

Henderson’s script is aging very well, helped by the fact that it’s laden with remembrances of a couple’s past in 1940s Canterbury, rather than a contemporary reality. We see Elizabeth (Emma Deakin) and Tom (Samuel Webster) in the prime of life – as they see each other – and it’s only gradually that we begin to realise the depth of their mutual passion relates to a much longer-term relationship than the characters’ apparent physical age might have initially led us to believe.

Stella Duffy’s appropriately sparse production places a third performer onstage throughout: cellist Katie Brayben underscores sections of the text, adding tension to the sections of boisterous physical grappling between the lovers. Brayben is also implied as an onstage presence of the couple’s absent daughter Kitty, and also interacted with directly as a woman Tom recalls flirting with.

These direct interactions slightly muddy the internal conventions of the piece in my opinion – we’re experiencing the intimate, subjective reality of a couple; seeing them through each other’s eyes, and three’s a crowd in that equation. But Brayben feeds strong focus into the piece throughout, making her a sympathetic onstage presence.

Emma Deakin is an emotionally generous Elizabeth; playful and sincere, easily arousing audience sympathies. The youthful vigour of her performance, while tempered by calculating guile as she plays with her lover’s vulnerabilities, is so compelling that it outweighs the gravitas that we might also expect considering the character’s real age and life experience.

Samuel Webster’s Tom is a good match for her physical sparrings, Webster matching Deakin’s emotional transparency as the lovers clash, confide and just about seem ready to consume each other in moments of believable erotic chemistry. Webster has a pronounced Northern English accent, which bothered me at first, in this very New Zealand piece. The character of Tom has known Elizabeth since their schooldays, so the accent seems to jar within the reality of the play – particularly when it so clearly contrasts with Deakin’s accent. It did set me thinking about the rural earthiness of the piece, and how this could be compared to fellow Northerner D H Lawrence’s earthy sensuality of tone… but I doubt that was the intention! 

Director Stella Duffy has facilitated an appropriate intensity between the performers. Given the awful sightlines in the theatre for any action happening on the floor, she has wisely kept most of the physical grapplings between the lovers up off the floor, against walls, and even hanging from a ceiling beam at one point. The physical passage where a knife becomes involved between the lovers certainly amps up the intensity of their interactions – the knife edge of love and pain. A bucket of water is repeatedly engaged in the action – water flicked and spat within conflicts, water wiping away tears, and water as the medium for a physical farewell of a lover’s body in the play’s poignant final scene.

This production avoids both the nudity and the final appearance of the elderly Tom, seen without the rose-tinting of Elizabeth’s perceptions of him. I presume are both in the script – they have certainly been features of other productions – and the impact of the play’s denouement is lessened as a result.

But the emotional intensity achieved by the actors within the climactic moments of the piece certainly honours the story, and the work’s distinctive New Zealandness of tone and physical directness is sure to prompt a few homesick pangs for New Zealanders in the audience on a dark London evening.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Sonal Patel March 23rd, 2010

For posterity's sake that I thought that I should post the other reviews that this production of Skin Tight received in the UK:

SKIN TIGHT review by Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
Saturday, 23 January 2010
3 stars

"I have to go.  I should have gone hours ago," says Elizabeth in Gary Henderson's play, inspired by a poem called The Magpies by Denis Glover.  Like Glover's marvellous, spare, sad text, Henderson's play wastes few words telling the story of lovers Elizabeth and Tom, who we first see romping playfully as puppies.  However this couple exude a strong erotic charge and their rough and tumble soon turns into sexual games.

This pair have known each other since school. They know each other's bodies as well as they know the nearby mountains and fields where they grew up.  In this space in just over an hour, they offer us a map of their world and of their hearts.  "I remember everything," says Elizabeth.  This is indeed a memory play, but one so cunningly structured that the memories are vivid and immediate, turning past and present into one.  Initial confusion about when this is set and what war took Tom away from Elizabeth and led to her infidelity gradually clears like smoke.  What we are left with is a touching portrait of a long, sexually satisfying marriage that has survived the loss of the family farm and even estrangement from their daughter Kitty.

It's a small play with a big open heart.  Stella Duffy's physical production elicits charming performances from Emma Deakin and Sam Webster.  Cello player Katie Brayben is a constant presence, too, musically underscoring the emotional changes in 60 touching but unsentimental minutes that contain a simple message: how hard it is to say goodbye.

SKIN TIGHT review by Richard Stamp, Fringe Guru   
Monday, 01 February 2010
4 stars

Skin Tight, Riverside Studios, London
Run ended

It’s a curious work, Skin Tight: uncomfortable, and perhaps a little tricksy, but one of very few plays to have sent me away blinking tears from my eyes.  At its heart it’s a simple tale of two people who want to spend their lives together – but will soon be forced to part.  Waiting for the time to say goodbye, the man and woman share episodic remembrances of the precious moments they’ve enjoyed: their first words, their first date, their first intimacy.

The nameless couple’s reminiscences range from the charmingly mundane to the cruelly unexpected, for there’s nothing like a parting of ways to flush out the secrets we’ve been bursting to share.  The horror of war is a particular, powerful theme, explored both through the eyes of the naïve young soldier and the desolation of the sweetheart he left behind.  It’s hard to bear at times.  But there’s well-judged humour too, defusing the tension of the play’s darker scenes and easing the embarrassment of its occasional sexual frankness.

All the same, I felt there were a few pacing issues.  The script is wonderfully tender, yet it’s punctuated by moments of gut-wringing tension; that’s hard to pull off, and the harshness of the interludes left me impatient during the more lyrical scenes.  There’s also a lot of messing about with a knife, which the characters press against each other’s skin and even (look away if squeamish) threaten to stab into their eyes.  I suspect I’ve failed to understand a metaphor here – but whatever it was trying to do, that particular motif managed only to make me cringe.

But the sparse set, evoking the mountains of New Zealand through nothing more than draped sheets, is otherwise used to great effect.  The only other prop of note – a bath – proves hugely versatile; in turns it’s threatening, sensual, and still.  The original music played live on stage is sparing and evocative as well, and the script itself is no less a celebration of simplicity, as the central characters look wistfully back on the rural life they have lost.

Yet there’s one aspect to this play which is anything but straightforward; the playwright – or was it the director? – has set us up for an audacious trick.  As the reason for our couple’s parting is slowly revealed, a crucial aspect of our understanding of them is proved to be utterly wrong.  It follows that some of what we’ve watched must have been a metaphor – or perhaps, happened only inside the characters’ minds.

I’ve never seen this technique used in quite this way before, and it thrilled and confounded me in equal measure.  I can’t help thinking that some of the audience will leave feeling tricked or confused.  But if you’re prepared to accept it, it’s an exciting development, which spurs you to run through your memories of the earlier scenes and paint them with fresh new colours.

And it clears the way, too, for a sharply bittersweet ending – a true masterclass in understated emotion, which cancelled out any nagging reservations which remained.  Softly acted, gently foreshadowed and crushingly inevitable, the final scene delivered both a satisfying sense of resolution and a keenly-felt, deeply personal, pain.

Sadly, it’s too late to catch Skin Tight at Riverside, as I only managed to see it at the very end of its run.  But it’s a script that’s spent some time on the Festival circuit – it won a Fringe First way back in 1998 – and I think there’s a good chance the current production will be venturing out again

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A thousand complexities in one relationship

Review by Catherine Campbell 23rd Oct 2009

Skin Tight is as passionate, confusing and intimate as any relationship.  Add in violent, masochistic and deeply tender and you have the relationship between Elizabeth and Tom, who have survived a world war, infidelity, parental disapproval and disappointing offspring.  But only just. 

Played energetically by Emma Deakin and Samuel Webster, their relationship is strained to say the least.  As they argue and fight over times past, I begin to wonder why they are together at all.  It’s like overhearing your flatmates arguing when they’re drunk.  Every old grievance comes back up to be picked over anew and fuel resentment.

I am hooked: it is the proverbial car crash; I can’t look away.  Because yes, I too have argued drunk and yes, I know that history can accumulate in any relationship.  But as they fling each other round the room, one minute play fighting like randy adolescents, the next rushing each other at full force, their relationship starts to change.  Somewhere between reminiscing about the Canterbury Plains (enough to make any Kiwi girl living in London homesick, even if done in an English accent) and doing dangerous, sexy things with knives, tenderness starts to develop.  Subtle at first amongst the power play and boob grabbing, it grows to heart-breaking proportions until the bitter sweet end.

The set is simple and, along with a live cello player, makes for a soothing backdrop against the disharmony of the action.   The direction feels straightforward and natural allowing for the actors to tell/show the story.  However some of the action on ground level is lost, although by the sounds of heavy breathing I think I know what’s going on, and crane my neck all the more to try to see! 

Deakin is disarming as the feisty Elizabeth and Webster comes into his own in the final scene, displaying a stoic vulnerability that moves me to tears. 

All human relationships are complex, and none more so then the relationship between men and women.  Skin Tight shows just one relationship, and a thousand complexities.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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