A Rattle of Keys (an excerpt of the play is provided by The Tribe here) is a new play by student writer and director Joanna Alpern, whose previous works include Bitter Root and Acts of the Bedroom. Her newest work does not fail to live up to the high standard set by those past productions. It engages with themes concerning the importance and dangers inherent in archetypal gender roles and sex-related crimes in military settings, and, in doing so, is an excellent example of how art can address and embody contemporary issues.
More ambitious than the subject matter, and certainly the aspect which most elevates the piece, is the structure of the writing. Much of the story–including the crucial event which defines the characters’ relation to one another–is relayed through flashback, by conversations between the individuals or by directly displaying the events onstage. Although this can be difficult to pull off effectively, since the audience is often not entirely aware of what has transpired, A Rattle of Keys succeeds in engaging the audience and maintaining their interest throughout the show’s entirety.
Overall the quality of acting is remarkable, with strong performances from all three members of the cast. Particular credit must go to Kuffasse Boane for her excellent characterisation of Alice; she combined aggression and uncertainty to appear entirely legitimate as a disillusioned ex-soldier. The first impression of Nick as a troubled yet essentially decent person is shattered as past events unfold through flashbacks, and the success of this transition relies crucially on Sebastian Carrington-Howell’s excellent performance in the role, not least his chilling depiction of quiet, drunken fury in the final scene. Cara Mahoney also turns in a strong rendition of Florence, the caring yet ineffectual mother and psychologist. However, this does highlight a minor issue of this play, made apparent in the first scene where Florence is treating Alice in therapy.
Although it is revealed later that Florence has very good reasons for her apparent lack of spine, it is hard to shake the initial impression that she is merely a poor therapist, at times appearing excessively nervous when handling an unfamiliar type of patient. Nonetheless, considering both the complexity of the show’s structure and the gravity of the issues it addresses, it’s almost inevitable that there would be occasions when realism is sacrificed for narrative purposes.
Production values were consistently high throughout; the use of a live pianist for musical accompaniment was particularly impressive. Initially it seemed that the music served to allow smooth transitions between scenes, but it was eventually revealed as being played by Nick. The scene changes were carried out efficiently and, unusually, with the stagehands visible onstage, which allowed for the intriguing effect of Florence being led away from a tense dispute with her son by someone who, strictly speaking, was not there. This added a further psychological element to the piece. Costumes were simple and effective, the set was believable without being minimalist, and any props had a clear purpose within the narrative.
As the first play of the academic year, A Rattle of Keys has set a clear precedent for the quality of student theatre in St Andrews. If you didn’t manage to catch one of its performances, I would urge you to keep an eye out for any other original material coming up this year, especially anything with Joanna Alpern’s name attached to it.
Photo Credits: Aubrey McAllister