Review: The Mystae, Hampstead Downstairs

“What’s the word for illusion…when it’s shared”

Whatever they’re smoking down at the Hampstead Downstairs, I approve and would like some. The Mystae (rhymes with fisheye, kind of) continues the more experimental feel that The Blackest Black started 2014 off with and features one of the more intriguing set designs that you will see this year. The play is set in an ancient Cornish sea cave where three teenagers have gathered to conduct a ritual before they scatter off to universities and jobs and somehow, Georgia Lowe has managed to carve an effective rock formation in the ground of Swiss Cottage, complete with ominously rising tidal waters.

Technically, The Mystae is a pretty smashing piece of work even before any actors get on stage (or climb into the cave). John Leonard’s sound design brings the soothingly persistent sound of the sea to life (and later echoes brilliantly across the space), Simon Opie’s lighting suggests the secrets and surprises that could lie in any shadowy nook or cranny, and Tim Carroll’s production sparkles with excitement from the off. That it is then backed up by a nifty piece of writing by Nick Whitby is especially pleasing, a moody meditation on the intense emotional pull of this time of great change.

Fresh from the end of college, Ina, Holman and Tre have been researching an ancient pagan ritual, the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose mind-bending properties they’re determined to sample before they all leave for uni. And through this trio, Whitby brilliantly channels the heavy weight of being a teenager in rural isolation and the need to escape it, if you can; the parochial sense of regional identity that counters that mindset; and the almost incestuous closeness that can develop amongst friends in said situations. 

The real strength though comes in the unflinching honesty with which the zest for experimentation is embraced – there’s no glamorisation of drug use here as the sense of genuine peril is all too real, the initial exhilaration quickly curdled into dangerous extremism, the emotional torrents unleashed almost as strong as the coastal current that threatens them all. Adam Buchanan, Alex Griffin-Griffiths and Beatrice Scirocchi give three wonderfully naturalistic performances of wild abandon, teenage bravado and pseudo-existential angst in what turns out to be a boldly striking piece of writing.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Robert Day

Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 15th March

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