Miss Rasch, a seemingly-lively young woman, lives alone in a small flat in Hove. We see her arrive home, presumably from work; pick up the mail from her doorstep, leaf through a new magazine. She eats some dinner, watches some TV, and listens to the request programme on the radio. It’s a routine Miss Rasch has followed hundreds of times before. But tonight, something different happens; something startling and sad.
Request Programme is staged in a real one-bedroom flat, a brave decision which mostly pays off. As silent, invisible observers, we the audience are invading Miss Rasch’s space, yet never actually a part of it. It isn’t voyeuristic – a moment of partial nudity is handled with a careful balance of realism and discretion – but it is uncomfortable, especially as the radio programme finishes and silence descends. The set-up keeps you on your toes, as well; in a cramped and crowded space and you’ll often need to scurry out of the way, a fact I found increased my engagement with the piece more than it distracted from it.
The fact that the evening is so ordinary – that we could be watching anybody, in any flat in Brighton – is very much the point of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 40-year-old script. And it’s to actor Rachel Wood’s credit that, despite keeping her portrayal natural and believable, it never becomes banal. Miss Rasch is a woman of firm and fixed habits – obsessively so, maybe – and Wood builds her character with the lightest of touches, so that the way she flicks through a magazine or the methodical manner in which she prepares her dinner do feel like small glimpses into her mind. And glimpses are all we have; alone in her flat, Miss Rasch never speaks, and her expressions stay restrained and low-key.
But there’s the rub. Request Programme only really makes sense if Miss Rasch is putting on a brave face: if her apparent delight at a familiar tune on the radio is just a way of distracting herself from crushing loneliness within. But unfortunately, even though I already knew how the play was going to end, I never picked up any sense of threat or portent during the earlier scenes. When the turnabout comes – triggered by something as simple as dropping a necklace onto the floor – it feels less like repressed emotion bursting to the surface, and more like the complete substitution of one character with another.
On the other hand, the power and the moral of the piece come from looking backwards: from re-interpreting what you’ve seen in the light of new knowledge, acquired towards the very end. When Miss Rasch left her dinner almost untouched, I assumed she wasn’t hungry. But was Wood trying to tell me something rather more?
Request Programme is a piece of theatre which presents near-unique challenges – for reviewers as well as performers. It’s a deeply personal piece, and I think what you get out of it will depend very much on what you happen to take in. But for what it’s worth, I found it intriguing and compelling, a fascinating twist on the theatrical form. And its message, though a little forced, is an urgent one: a call to connect with those around us, for you never know what might be happening behind any given front door.