Monday, 2 July 2012

Detroit by Lisa D’Amour at Cottesloe, National Theatre London

Audio Described and Touch Tour 30th June 2012

Detroit is the 2nd performance I have “seen” at the National Theatre in London with audio description. (  I had been to The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov last year, going on my own and taking in a touch tour beforehand.  I had got out of the habit of booking far ahead on account of my hip problems.  However, a friend nudged me into going again as I had expressed an interest in seeing the National’s current production of Antigone.  I duly called the National’s box office and during my conversation with the helpful staff not only booked to ‘see’ Antigone, but managed to book for Detroit in addition to having my records at the NT updated!  It is worthwhile checking that your access needs are noted.  (

I thought no more about it until an audio CD arrived in the post - a pleasant surprise, as it contained detailed information about my performance dates, touch tour, programme notes and set details with a cast and credit list.  The CD had other useful information and on playing the Detroit references, I had an idea of the set, costumes and found I could identify two of the actors by name and voice from their radio work.  (This can stop me from whispering ‘I’m sure he/she plays ABC in…’ )   The CD was recorded by one of the describers Tony McBride.   I made a mental note of two particularly striking details mentioned on the CD: one was a reference to a rusting aluminium door and the other to a tortoiseshell clasp in the hair of one of the actors. 

Outside National Theatre
30 June 2012
© Prof Whitestick

On arrival at the Cottesloe, we were welcomed by Andrew Holland, who was one of the describers along with Tony, and by Duncan. 

Later, we were assembled and Reuben led us into the theatre and onto the set, where we grouped beside the aluminium framed mesh door. Andrew introduced us to most of the cast.  These were:

Stuart McQuarrie (Ben)
Will Adamsdale (Kenny)
Christian Rodska (Frank)
Justine Mitchell (Mary)

The fifth character was Sharon, played by Clare Dunne.

The cast spoke in character and were in costume but also spoke in their own voices.  I was shown the mesh door and opened it.  Behind was some cheap and old linoleum flooring signifying decay in the house (and the suburbs?).  An artificial flowering plant grew out of a gap and Stuart guided me to it.  I asked Christian if he was wearing clean deck shoes as announced in the audio notes.  He wasn’t, but his part (Frank) does not come on until the end of the play.

I was then taken over to the other half of the yard set and spoke to Will (Kenny) and Stuart (Ben) over the BarBQ.  This had been shipped over from Chicago and is gas fired.  Though it was out of my sight line (I could not have seen it), it is the focus for several key points in the dialogue.  A repeated line from Ben is “Put these puppies (steaks) on the grill”.  A pair of tongs too is used as an important playful prop in the play. 

I chatted with Andrew about audio description and we were joined by Stuart.  I mentioned my blog and the guest post by Neville Watchurst.  Andrew said he had done work on television too.  I asked how strict the direction was as with only two audio descriptions in the run it must be meticulous in the timing.   A describer has to both know the play and the likely outcomes of a move into an improvisation or extemporisation.  As no two performances are alike so no two descriptions in real time are the same. 

Next, I spoke to Justine (Mary) over the deck table with shade and tablecloth.  The colours of the shade and its unreliability open the play as do the sliding doors of the patio (deck). 

I found the access we had to the set, combined with the interaction with the cast and a describer very useful in adding to the audio CD input in my mind. The detail in the design and layout of the Cottesloe Theatre is very useful, as are the seats for visually impaired people.  Some large print and Braille notes were available and these were distributed to those who asked for them.  (Someone I had met at a National Gallery talk had asked for some details too.) 

The tour finished, we had a little over an hour for a coffee and sandwich in a café in the NT complex by the river. 

On returning to the Cottesloe Theatre I came across the bust of Cottesloe on the left hand side of the door.  Following my previous experiences with Elgar, Keats, Wellcome and Van Gogh’s doctor, I tried the bust. 

Lord Cottesloe at entrance of Cottesloe Theatre
National Theatre, London
30 June 2012
© Prof Whitestick

For the performance, I was given the Infra Red audio headsets and told how to use them.  Reuben guided me to my seat which was on the apex of an isosceles triangle with about 75 degrees of audio about 3 rows up from the floor.  This is an ideal spot as the headsets give an obvious 180 degree audio signal.  Shortly before the performance was due to start, Reuben came round checking that we could all listen to the audio prologue.  This gives useful information about action, lighting, noises and a tip to turn up the volume and turn the headset volume down again. 

The play opens against a backdrop of aircraft approaching and this reminded me of Detroit’s DTW airport, beloved of those in certain industries.  The play features two couples in a very rundown neighbourhood facing challenges.  The area is described as a first ring suburb with additions, neglect and some properties being “home improved”. 

I remember Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee shown during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  This illustrated a dystopic view of London and a somewhat feral nature of the society.  The picture of suburban life in ‘Detroit’ gives an idea of nature taking over developments and a breakdown in some parts of society.  Sharon and Kenny are unashamed “White Trash” though more so than that portrayed by the sitcom Roseanne. 

Having driven through parts of the US Rustbelt in the 1980s and 1990s I was prepared for some of the references and dialogue.  Mary’s pretensions with her Hvarti cheese and caviar are neatly juxtaposed with Sharon’s nibbles such as saltines and delta caviar.  During the play there are also references to Solar Power Drive or Ultra Violet Road (which fitted neatly with my Infra Red headset) in addition to the US Freeway numbering system.  However - and without giving anything away - there is quite a long dance sequence which would have been lost on us without the graphic descriptions of the audio describers.  The play translates very well from its Chicago first showing and  it speaks for itself as a performance with the input from Andrew and Tony.

So, well done National Theatre!  This was a very imaginative way of giving some of us an idea of what is going on.  The combination of audio CD, touch tour and audio description was ideal. 

Production Notes

These notes have been taken from the material made available to us and also from the flyers.  These were read to me by my companion though if on your own questions can be asked.

“The world premiere of Detroit was produced and presented from 9 September to 7 November 2010 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Artistic Director Martha Lavey, Executive Director David Hawkanson.”

Other posts to do with description are:

Prof Whitestick has also reviewed the following: