Review: Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre

Possibly the only thing worse than being locked up and kept in isolation for an indeterminate amount of time is not knowing who’s responsible or why. This is the plight of the characters in Locked Up, a tense two-hander that’s both the professional London debut of writer Heather Simpkin and the first full-length play from emerging theatre company Bear in the Air Productions.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

We first meet Declan (Samuel Ranger), who passes his time pacing the floor of the cell, attempting to do push-ups, and singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” in an endless, mind-numbing loop. The opening minutes of James McAndrew’s production convey very effectively the monotony of Declan’s day-to-day existence, and after a series of short, sharp scenes it’s not long before we too have lost track of time. It’s as much of a shock for us as it is for Declan, then, when one day he suddenly finds he’s no longer alone. His new cellmate is Topher (Conor Cook), who’s equally clueless as to their captors’ intentions – or is he?

Time passes, and the two slowly grow more relaxed around each other, allowing us to get to know them better and fill in a bit of their backstories. We soon learn that they’re very different personalities: Samuel Ranger’s Declan is sensitive and risk-averse, while Conor Cook’s Topher takes a “no guts, no glory” approach to life – so it’s no surprise that he’s the one who ends up taking charge of their escape plan. The uneasy friendship and shifting dynamic between the two is interesting to watch as it develops, particularly as we’re also not sure who – if anyone – we can trust.

Locked Up is a story about human relationships, first and foremost, and asks some searching questions about trust, betrayal and the ways in which a crisis can bring together even the unlikeliest collaborators. But it also touches on current political and social issues that we can all relate to, like the threat of terrorism and government surveillance, and the fear of failure that so often holds us back from pursuing what we really want in life.

If Simpkin’s writing isn’t enough to keep us on the edge of our seats then the light and sound effects employed at each scene change will finish the job; lighting designer Euan Davies has a row of bright spotlights shine directly on to the audience, accompanied by loud and unsettling noises. This has the practical purpose of allowing the actors to invisibly reset the stage – occasionally disappearing from it altogether when one of the characters is taken away for interrogation in the mysterious White Room – but it also keeps the audience on our toes; there’s little chance of us getting too comfortable at any point during the hour-long play.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

Similarly, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is logistically clever, allowing the actors to leave and return seemingly out of thin air, but it also helps reinforce the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters aren’t the only ones who have no idea what’s going on outside these four walls; for the duration of the play, we’re as trapped and in the dark (both literally and figuratively) as they are.

The end, when it comes, is abrupt and catches us completely off guard, and though it’s frustrating that the story cuts off where it does, in a way it’s the perfect moment to stop and leave it to the audience to ponder answers to our many remaining questions. An intriguing and unnerving hour of theatre, Locked Up will keep you guessing to the end – and beyond.

Locked Up is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 28th July.

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