Nat Norland’s “Portents” at the Beldam Theatre never makes the exact claim anywhere that it is a play, but neither does it totally clarify that it is a stage reading. It might be fairer on the whole to supply prospective theatregoers with this information. Yet note that I have not here decided that there is any actively underhand factor to “Portents.” The situation is in fact a little more delicate than this. Whereas the show selects the format of a stage reading, there is always more to it than its format.
A stage reading is used whenever a production wishes to exhibit itself to audiences in an unready state. Those participating in such a project have typically not yet memorised their lines and so they have to read them off printed scripts. But the three performers in “Portents” – Ross Hunter, Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet – clearly do not need the pages that are turning in front of them. Rather, this show wishes to be decanted formally and as a recital.
It is always framed by some sharp atmospherics, with busy, knowledgeable hands all over the soundsystem and the lighting. Eventually the format has a payoff. The readings initially sound bare and listless. Where there are conversations, it is as if each speaker is spiritlessly and rhythmically replying just to keep the shuttlecock in the air. Still, this dialogue gradually crescendos and clamours, growing ever more interestingly textured, until it is being chanted almost as a kind of music.
It can flow like this because there isn’t otherwise much in the show to reflect upon. It has chosen to muse inconsequentially about conspiracy theories, a field that is often banal and prone to run quickly into clichés. It offers up a minestrone of flash fiction, comments from message boards, snatches of conversation, and, randomly, some a cappella David Bowie. Floating like a poached egg in the noodle soup is the very best thing about this production, a largely verbatim rerun of the conspiracy theorist David Icke’s notorious interview with Terry Wogan. Hunter captures the weird soothingness of Icke’s voice and he makes it sound even more eerily calm. The problem is, though, that “Portents” is at its most powerful when it is being written by David Icke and Terry Wogan.
Yet a stylishly silly and well executed ending makes “Portents” immediately more likeable. I am pleasantly surprised that not very much had portended a substantial finale.