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Sublime (Tristan Bates Theatre, London): Review

sublime It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that bling! Adele Oni as Sophie in 'Sublime'. Photograph: Courtesy of Vendetta Productions.

Sublime is a curious heist caper that has smart twists, but lacks the tautness it needs to really pull off the steal of a show it’s trying to be.

Sophie has just walked back into her brother’s life after two years away. She wants him to do three last jobs for her. Three last jobs that will free her from her shackles and set them up for life. But Sam has “settled down” with his new girlfriend Clara. Will their special bond of kinship be enough for Sophie to convince Sam to join him for the ultimate heist: stealing the secret Hatton Garden gold hidden at a little nightclub called Sublime?

Writing

I do love a good heist thriller: who doesn’t! I love the “will they/won’t they pull it off” thrills, especially when you throw in a whole lot of other variables and intricacies that keep such a question unanswered right up until the very end. Some of the best heist stories, such as The Italian Job, still keep the question unanswered beyond the end credits! So, Sublime has a lot to live up to in a genre that has a very high benchmark that can only be met by a writer who has not just a few tricks up their sleeve, but also a tricksy narrative intelligence that can throw you off the scent at their command.

Writer Sarah Thomas does actually have that for Sublime, although you may not think it at first. At the end of Act I, you think you know where Sublime is going to go. Indeed, the big end of first act “reveal” was telegraphed so indiscreetly it’s not quite the shocker that you think it could or should have been. From that, you’re fairly confident that you know where Act II is going to go. But your interval hubris is swept out from underneath you as Sublime completely goes in a direction that you simply weren’t prepared for. Add to this some really detailed writing that explore a blackly comic and biting banter-filled dynamic between brother and sister, mixed with slowly revealing murky pasts, and Sublime really is an unexpectedly complex caper that is genuinely original and quite satisfying.

The problem with Sublime is that Thomas tries to be too comprehensive in exploring the incredibly intricate backstory and little twists. Dialogue is really drawn out and a little exhausting that it saps the punchiness that a heist caper really needs. Instead of being tense and electric, we’ve got something that’s intriguing but laboured. However, it’s a difficult balance to get: trying build an infallible foundation for the narrative’s surprises, feed the audience enough information as well as sleights of hand that makes these surprises surprising whilst simultaneously making sense, and ensuring the text and the dialogue gives Sublime the energy for it to feel thrilling in its execution.

But what Sublime really needs is just more time and development: some tightening and possible chopping of the text to make is a spikier play that is at current. Otherwise, I was geniuenly not expecting Sublime to end up where it did, and the false sense of security and red herrings it chucks at you are very well played. Sublime really has the potential to be a steal of a show. It just needs to lighten its load so it can get away quicker.

Direction

The stage design is pretty basic, but does all it needs to do in setting the scene of mostly Sam’s living space, but also is flexible enough to also be a club, and the club landlord’s lounge. It’s simple and effective. There’s a nice little touch of having black pictures in frames, playing on Thomas’ themes of veiled pasts and underworld invisibility. The lighting design feels like it could have done more. Though it’s mainly a clean wash for the most of Sublime, the light of moonlight through a window shining crookedly onto the back of the set is a really nice touch. You feel that more could be done with the lighting design, especially as more dynamic lighting could help bring more energy and variety to a text that really needs it.

Ben SantaMaria’s direction works hard to give Thomas’ text the verve it really needs, but doesn’t really pull it off. They admittedly have their work cut out for them, here, but there are things that certainly could have been better executed. Most of the time characters are just standing and/or sitting around rattling through dialogue, or loitering waiting for the next thing to happen. One scene had a scant sense of immediate danger that really should have been more impactful and more engaging. All it needs is some directorial touches like decisive movement and/or tesnser interaction between characters.

On the other hand, there are lovely little moments where SantaMaria toys with the “will they/won’t they” thrills of Sublime: one very memorable moment was whether someone was going to drink a spiked beverage that on a lot hinged on it. Again, like Thomas’ text, there’s real latency of something very good in the production, but it just needs more time and reworking to achieve it.

Cast

There’s a lovely little quartet in Sublime, but it’s the central duo that really thrill. Adele Oni dominates much of Sublime as the charismatic and coercive Sophie, with grand and almost mocking airs, making them an utter joy to watch. However, it’s really the chemistry Oni has with on-stage brother, Michael Fatogun, that is really intriguing. Yes, you get the sense of deep kinship between them. But, especially through the first act, you get the sense that something isn’t quite right. There’s a friction and an oddness in what they bounce off eachother that you can’t quite put your finger on, never knowing whether to attribute this to underworld eccentricities and false faces, or whether there’s something more sinister lurking beneath.

Verdict

Sublime isn’t the heist of the century, but thankfully it’s far from a crime against theatre. There’s some real worthwhile loot hidden in there; it just needs more work to extract it.

Sublime runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 8 April 2017. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.