Review: Apples in Winter at the Playground Theatre

Miriam’s making an apple pie for her son. She’s made it countless times before – when he was a child, a teenager and a man… but this time is different. This time she’s in a prison kitchen, preparing the pie that her son’s requested as a final meal before his execution. As a clock ruthlessly ticks down the minutes on the wall behind her, Miriam pours all her hurt and grief into the last thing she’ll ever do for the child she loved, lost and found again only when it was too late to save him.

The premise of Jennifer Fawcett’s play is hard-hitting enough, but in the right hands it becomes absolutely devastating – and it’s hard to imagine hands more right than those of actor Edie Campbell. What’s important about Miriam is that she’s a nice lady, one you’d never expect to find in these circumstances, and Campbell radiates warmth and kindness from the moment she appears on stage. We like her, and so when her mask slips and we glimpse the pain beneath the smile, we feel it too. And as her reflections build gradually to a crescendo of rage and despair – against the system, against her son, and most of all against herself – we feel every single moment of it with her. It’s upsetting for all sorts of reasons, but largely because Miriam could be anyone’s mother; if such a horrific thing can happen to her, why not to any of us?

Whatever your views about the death penalty going in, it’s hard to watch Apples in Winter and not come away from it feeling sickened by a system that claims to offer justice but in fact does the exact opposite. 22 years after his crime, it’s difficult to think what Robert’s death can possibly achieve besides causing more suffering to more people, perpetuating a cycle of violence and revenge that should have ended long ago. And it’s hard to imagine what kind of life his mother will be going back to after today, knowing everything that she’s lost, and is about to lose, as a result of her son’s crime and punishment. The pie – prepared and baked on stage during the performance – might be perfect but everything else is shattered beyond repair, and the play’s last line, spoken with a heartbreaking finality, leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence for several moments after the lights go down.

I could probably write an essay on the quality of Fawcett’s writing, which is both sensitive and brutal in its exploration of a difficult topic. It raises so many points about not only the death penalty, but about family, and loss, and the failings of a society that drives people to crime and then denies them any opportunity for redemption. Director Claire Parker lets these words breathe, punctuating the production with moments of silence that give Miriam time alone with her thoughts, and the audience a chance to digest and process what we’ve heard. The play is also followed every evening by a post-show discussion, which provides further opportunity to explore the themes and impact of the play.

All I can really say about Apples in Winter is that it’s really, really good, with an immensely powerful one-woman performance from Edie Campbell that will leave you feeling shaken and devastated and furious. An absolute must-see.

Apples in Winter is at the Playground Theatre until 15th October.

Review: Guinea Pigs at The Space

Between 1952 and 1965, over 22,000 British servicemen, many of them on National Service, were shipped to remote locations in the Pacific Ocean to participate in, and clear up after, nuclear tests. Dressed only in shirt sleeves, with no protective equipment, these “guinea pigs” were made to witness nuclear detonations in the Pacific, and went on to experience disproportionate levels of mental and physical illness as a result. 70 years later, these veterans and their families have still received no acknowledgment or apology from the UK government for their trauma or the irreparable damage caused.

Photo credit: Damian McFadden

The 70th anniversary of the tests is marked with a new play by Elin Doyle, whose father Mike became a test veteran when he was only 19, and campaigned for justice until his death at the age of 67. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece that takes the writer’s memories of growing up with her dad and transfers them to a fictional family. Coral (played by Doyle) is a teenager in the 1980s, who’s just beginning to have a voice and opinions of her own. She’s torn between love and concern for her vulnerable dad Gerry (Jonny Emmett) and horrified shame over his participation in the development of such a powerful weapon. A typical teenager, Coral thinks she knows best about everything, including things she doesn’t really understand yet, and much of the play sees father and daughter going head to head as they try to work through their differences of opinion and ultimately learn to meet somewhere in the middle.

There’s a lot to appreciate in Guinea Pigs. The central inspiration is a topic that’s been deliberately covered up and will therefore be news to many audience members, and Doyle’s script both asks challenging questions about the rights and wrongs of nuclear armament, and draws neat parallels between the UK’s political situation in the 1980s and in 2022 (in summary, not much has changed). The performances in general are strong; Elin Doyle makes a very convincing stroppy teenager, and Jonny Emmett is instantly sympathetic as her long-suffering dad, while Caron Kehoe slips seamlessly between multiple roles – most notably as Auntie Maureen, Gerry’s sister who just wants to keep the peace. Director Laura Kirman keeps a good pace throughout, with smooth scene changes accompanied by an infectious 80s soundtrack, and there’s some nice work from lighting designer Catherine van der Hoven at two key dramatic moments.

Photo credit: Damian McFadden

Where the play could be improved is in its dialogue, which is often exposition-heavy and begins to get repetitive; though it’s arguably realistic to show a dad and his teenage daughter having the same argument again and again, it ultimately does little to further the narrative after the first time. This also means that other plot points with greater dramatic potential – Gerry’s suspicion that their phone are being tapped, or the sudden death of a scientist sympathetic to their cause, for instance – are left underdeveloped. That said, Gerry’s description of the nuclear blast is very powerfully written and delivered, with some haunting imagery that I won’t forget any time soon, and a speech given by Coral at a school event near the end of the play makes an eloquent point about the importance of speaking up and using our voices for good.

In short, there’s a huge amount of potential in this very personal story, and with some tightening and perhaps a slight refocusing of the script, Elin Doyle has the makings of a very important and eye-opening piece of theatre.

Guinea Pigs continues at The Space until 8th October.

Review: The Quality of Mercy at the Courtyard Theatre

Theatre doesn’t get much more personal than this. The Quality of Mercy is the story of serial killer Harold Shipman, written and performed by Edwin Flay – a patient of Shipman’s as a child, and the grandson of Renee Lacey, who died at the Hyde GP’s hands when she was just 63 years old. Set in his cell on the night Shipman will take his own life, the play sees him recording a final tape, looking back on his life and crimes, and attempting to justify his motivation for ending so many innocent lives.

Photo credit: Anne Koerber

As one might expect, the story is chilling – not least because Shipman himself is, for the most part, icily calm and entirely confident in his own righteousness. He sneers at comparisons with other serial killers, believing himself to be driven by a higher purpose than their “sweaty id and uncontrollable lust”. And what’s terrifying is that to begin with, it almost makes sense; as we see Fred the helpless teenager watching his mother die slowly of cancer, and Shipman the charming young doctor treating a patient wracked with terrible pain, we can almost understand where that purpose might have come from. But as his crimes grow in number, it becomes apparent that he’s driven not by mercy but by ego, and the firm belief that only he should have the power to decide who lives and dies.

Despite Shipman’s obvious disdain for his victims – some of whom he openly admits he killed simply “to put them out of my misery” – the production treats them with infinite respect. As the play goes on, the names of his victims appear one by one on a large video screen at the back of the stage (credit to videographer Neil Monaghan), in a discreet but powerful tribute that also hammers home the shocking scale of Shipman’s crimes. Through flashbacks, we get glimpses of the man’s compassionate bedside manner and affable interactions with colleagues, which go some way to explaining how he could have got away with it for so long – but even so, that wall of over 200 names, and the knowledge that he could have been stopped so much earlier, is quietly devastating.

Photo credit: Anne Koerber

Director Bernie C. Byrnes’ production is simply staged, with the bed in Shipman’s cell doubling as a sick bed where many of his victims meet their end, while subtle changes in lighting and sound (Adam Bottomley and Kirsty Gillmore respectively) differentiate between present day and flashbacks. But what lifts the production to another level is Edwin Flay’s performance, which manages to be both persuasive and repellent all at once. There’s no doubt Shipman claimed to be fulfilling some divine purpose, but Flay’s portrayal exposes his true motivation in the rare moments where he loses control of his own narrative. These are moments of the blackest humour, but very telling – each time Shipman is forced to stop, take a breath and literally edit the record – and for that reason, those few moments wield the most power.

Though hardly a cheerful watch (but let’s face it, it was never going to be), ultimately The Quality of Mercy is true crime done right. There’s no attempt to glamorise Shipman’s crimes, or even – perhaps despite first appearances – justify them. In the end the focus, rightly, is on his victims, and ultimately in the coming days, weeks and months, that wall of names is what I’ll remember.

The Quality of Mercy continues at the Courtyard Theatre until 8th October.

Quick Q&A: The Quality of Mercy

Where and when: The Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton – 27 September – 8 October, Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm plus 2.30pm on Saturdays

What it’s all about… In his cell in the dead of night, Dr Harold Shipman sits and records a confessional tape, tracing his journey from childhood to becoming the most prolific serial killer in British history.

You’ll like it if… you’re interested in true crime, biographical theatre, or an in-depth psychological study of a murderer whose motives will forever remain shrouded in mystery. Beyond the central character, The Quality of Mercy touches on themes of euthanasia, narcissistic psychopathy, and how the human desire to see justice done can often become warped into a lust for power.

You should see it because… It’s really good! Seriously, it’s been meticulously researched with a central performance that will make you sit bolt upright in your seat. Media about crime in general, and murder in particular, tends to be sensationalist and even lurid; from the beginning, we’ve conceived this piece to be thrilling, but profoundly respectful to the victims and their families.

Anything else we should know… Edwin Flay, the playwright and actor, is related to one of Shipman’s victims, and he was himself a patient of Shipman’s as a small boy. He wrote this in 2019, in part in response to conversations he had about Shipman, in which people seemed to have forgotten the extent of the man’s crimes. The Quality of Mercy has been published by PlayDead Press, and will be available for purchase at the show.

Where to follow:
Twitter: @NailedCreates @CourtyardHoxton @EdwinFlay @La_Lawrie @BernieCByrnes #QualityofMercyPlay

Instagram: @CourtyardTheatre @La_Lawrie @BernieC.Byrnes #QualityofMercyPlay

Ticket link: https://dice.fm/search?query=the+quality+of+mercy

Review: Another Eavesdropping at the Jack Studio Theatre

We all love a bit of eavesdropping – whether it’s just a single line heard out of context, or a complete story, overheard conversations can give us an insight into the world and the people around us, inspire flights of imagination, and spark new discussions of our own. Angel Theatre clearly see the dramatic potential of listening in to these encounters, as they return with Another Eavesdropping, which follows previous productions EavesdroppingMore Eavesdropping and Eavesdropping Again.

Photo credit: Angel Theatre

To create Another Eavesdropping, the cast of twelve (Ben Armitage, Anna Bonnett, Georgia Dawson, Kieran Dooner, Kitty Evans, Beatrice Hyde, Gordana Kostic, James Lee, Taylor Pope, Laura Shipler Chico, Christie Silvester and Ricky Zalman) spent several weeks transcribing genuine conversations they overheard while out in public. Each transcription was anonymised and the raw text shared with the rest of the company to be adapted into a short scene. Some of these scenes are funny, some heartbreaking, some confusing, and some extremely mundane – just like real life. Because the words are presented verbatim, there’s no perfectly crafted script or carefully designed narrative arc; some get surprisingly deep with very few words, while others become repetitive to the point of absurdity and ultimately end up saying very little. Some of the characters are instantly sympathetic, while others are harder to like – but each of them has something to say, and that’s the key point.

Because the show is made up of lots of completely individual vignettes, there’s no plot to connect them, but the cast do a good job of transitioning smoothly from one to the next so that the show rarely feels disjointed. When not performing in a scene, the actors all sit motionless at the side, impassively observing the action. A shelf unit at the back of the stage contains a number of props – a shopping bag, a bowl of pasta, an apple, a book, some yoga mats… – each of which plays a key role in a single scene. The settings for each piece have been selected by the cast, the real setting never having been shared with the rest of the company, and throughout the evening we find ourselves in a golf club, on a bus, in a pharmacy, and any number of everyday locations. As a result, we get to hear from a decent range of voices, although a lack of diversity among the cast means this doesn’t go as far as it could, and the London life portrayed in the show is probably not one that everyone will recognise.

Photo credit: Angel Theatre

The idea of Another Eavesdropping is a clever one, with an infinite supply of new material to be had – you only have to step out your front door, get on a bus or go to the shops to overhear any number of similar conversations on any given day. The key ingredient here is not the words themselves but how they’re brought to life, and strong performances and an ear for the often unintentional humour that’s all around us is what makes Another Eavesdropping an enjoyable show to watch. It might also make you think twice before you start another public conversation, as you never know who might be listening…

Another Eavesdropping continues at the Jack Studio Theatre until 1st October.