Sometimes you meet someone, out in the pub, surrounded by noise and chatting at ten miles an hour. They’re a bit gobby, they’re making too many jokes, and you know it’s not real. You wonder what they’re like when they’re on their own, and whether they are sad.
You can see that most of the people around them haven’t noticed, because they are having fun. Or they have noticed, but it’s harder to ask if that person is alright than it is to keep up the banter. If they ask, they don’t know what answer they’ll get. It might ruin the party.
Produced by Bristol’s Popcorn Productions, Zero introduces us to Beth (Grace Vance). She’s just nipped outside to have a fag, and she’s struck up a conversation with you, the audience. It’s her 21st birthday party and she’s trying to have fun. She’s trying to act normal, to enjoy herself. She just needs a minute, away from the crap 80s rock DJ, her dad’s bad dancing, and her big sister telling her she should make more effort. She’s fine, she just needs a second to get her shit together.
Her only props a cigarette, a lighter that won’t work and a chair under the spotlight, Beth chats the usual meaningless crap you hear outside a club. Nervous babble. But she’s a bit tipsy and starts to get overemotional. So she babbles nervously some more to cover it up. Where is this conversation going, we wonder? How do we get out of it? It’s getting a bit awkward – a bit weird.
The idea behind Zero is so simple and easy to relate to. We’ve all been in this situation. And usually, we finish our smoke, make our excuses and leave this girl outside alone. But we can’t do that today.
Directed by Sarah Flanagan, Zero is moving, brutal, awkward and funny in equal measures. Vance performs the character brilliantly, with a combination of weariness and innocence that shows her age, and how ill-equipped her character is to deal with her trauma and the reactions of the world around her. She wants to forget what happened – but she also wants to share it. To make someone understand. But they can’t, and they won’t. People don’t want to listen, and no one will look after her because they know what happened, and they can’t deal with it. So they joke, and so does she so they won’t notice. But she’s alone.
With a raw, wonderfully observed script by Rachel Ruth Kelly, Zero exposes the cruelty of media sensationalism, victim blame and the realities of the shame and vulnerability that result from it. Beth is broken, marginalised and lonely, but she hides it well, and she says she’s fine. So real is Vance’s performance that you leave feeling relieved that Beth has had someone to talk to, if only for a little while. But it’s easier to pretend you don’t notice the gobby, chatty persona is a lie.
We’ve all done it. Because the truth is hard to hear, and it takes time, effort and questioning your own reactions to really understand and help someone. And that’s just what Zero forces you to do.
Zero continues at the Alma Tavern Theatre until Wednesday, June 29. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.almataverntheatre.co.uk/theatre/what-s-on
The show then plays the Belly Laugh venue at Underbelly at Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 4-28. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk/whats-on/zero