A grandmother’s basement doesn’t seem like the first place to set a thriller. However, she has passed away, and now her granddaughter has returned to sort through her possessions, and found tape recordings that speak of some mysterious crime. Part comedy, part mystery, Jane Yonge directs this Kiwi production staring Stella Reid.
Reid is mostly acting to herself, she never addresses the audience. It is performed straight, so to speak, which is a brave choice and a break from most solo performances that tend to find a convoluted way of ensuring their performer have something to interact with. Instead, Reid is simply talking to herself, or talking to her Grandmother. It never comes off as unhinged or sad, but in keeping with her bouncy personality. She dances in the goofy, uninhibited way that one does when completing a tedious household task (but with some incredibly sharp choreography), she pretends that a radio buzzing with static is a lightsaber, she impersonates a hard-boiled New York cop interrogating her grandmother. Despite oozing with energy, she is also awkward and a little scared. She can read from the phone book in character and the audience will be engrossed.
Instead of the phone book though, she has the script, and Yonge’s direction. There’s a balance to be found with being humorous, yet having the weight that it is owed given our protagonist is grieving, whilst maintaining the audience’s interest in the tapes. It’s a balance that they achieve seamlessly. The script is sparkling with wit, so much so that it incorporates clichés that would usually be greeted with sighs, such as a fake-out of a distressed phone call that turns out to be a pizza order, and gets away with it on strength of the writing and direction. The pace does occasionally dip, straying from the main plot more than it needed to for longer than it needed to, but its shifts in tone from joyous to melancholy more than make up for it.
Though that would usually be enough for a show, what makes this play special is its ending. What might have been simply confusing is heightened to a heart-pounding level of tension by the design; the reverberating sound, the flickering lighting, the claustrophobic set. Surprising yet strangely inevitable, the twist of The Basement Tapes leaves its audience reeling, question the whole performance, and untangling the strands long after the curtain drops.