Kate Besworth in the Backbone Theatre Collective production of Spine. Photo by Robin Toma.
Kate Besworth in the Backbone Theatre Collective production of Spine. Photo by Robin Toma.

Clara Brennan’s Spine attempts to address the chasm and eventual friendship between a teenage spitfire, Amy, and an elderly widow, Glenda, who is hell-bent on taking power from politicians and putting it back into the hands of the people. Kate Besworth portrays both characters.

Unfortunately for Brennan, Besworth, and ultimately the audience, this one-woman marathon fails to achieve its goal.

The central problem lies in a lack of authenticity.

Besworth would look more like Amy if she let her curly hair down, as shown in the play’s pre-publicity and program notes. Instead, she scrapes it back into a ponytail. Perhaps this choice was made to accommodate her leaps between teen and pensioner, but it achieves nothing.

If Besworth slowed down as the elderly widow, thus contrasting her with the nervy, impulsive teen, it would lend more credence to their differences. The constant swapping between sketchy unfamiliar British accents – one generic Northern and the other broad Cockney – also jars, rather than defines the two characters.

Halfway through Besworth’s hour-long monologue – a tribute to her prowess at learning lines that include an over-generous helping of off-colour expletives – Amy’s caged, boiling-point energy begins to irritate.

The fact that the stage is inhabited by Besworth, as Amy, for a good twenty minutes before the play gets underway contributes to audience discomfort. Dodging from one incomplete thought to another, she dips into a book, abandons it, stretches, smiles, dances, sits, stands, reads, lies down, gets up, leaves, returns, stares, and so on. It all appears overacted and uncomfortable. The better choice, to discover the character asleep on the floor and see her burst into frenzied activity just before the play proper begins, would establish the character without tiring the audience.

By the play’s end, the incessant ducking and diving become exhausting.

Set designer Ariel Slack creates furniture for the room that Amy decides not to rent from Glenda, by using hundreds of books by authors from Goethe to Darwin. She festoons the bleak, black backdrop with pages pulled from magazines and journals to give the impression of walls. It’s a set that’s ideal for touring.

While Besworth is to be commended for tackling such a tour de force, it would be refreshing if, once or twice, she chilled for a minute and just told the story rather than act it all out.

Spine written by Clara Brennan. Directed by Wendy Bollard, assisted by Sandra Medeiros. A Backbone Theatre Collective production on stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until February 8. Visit showpass.com for tickets and information.