Review: Poisoned Polluted at Old Red Lion Theatre

Kathryn O’Reilly’s second play Poisoned Polluted focuses on the fragmenting relationship between two women – in this case, sisters. The play follows the two, known only as Her (Anna Doolan) and Sister (Kathryn O’Reilly), as they’re forced to leave behind the innocence of childhood and face up to an uncertain future that’s scarred by addiction and trauma. As the years pass, their close bond and love for each other becomes twisted into something that will ultimately prove damaging to them both.

As children, the sisters hide out from their mum’s addiction and their dad’s abuse in the local “forest” – which, with the benefit of hindsight, they can now acknowledge was really just a few trees next to the park. That motif of nature as a tainted refuge is present also in Mayou Trikerioti’s set, which consists of printed, peeling sheets that make up a distorted backdrop image of woodland trees.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

The play itself is structured as a series of short, sharp scenes which, under Lucy Allan’s direction, often flow seamlessly into one another. These chart the sisters’ downward spiral and the shift in their relationship as Her, who as a child benefited from her older sister’s protection, finds herself suddenly forced to return the favour. Anna Doolan and Kathryn O’Reilly both give excellent performances, meticulously portraying all their characters’ fear, frustration and pent-up resentment, right alongside the love and affection that continues against all odds to hold these two damaged women together. The tragedy of the play is that the two characters need each other – and yet neither of them can truly be happy until they break free of their never-ending cycle of codependency.

While the use of language in the play is important, just as powerful are the moments of silence; movement sequences between scenes (directed by Sophie Shaw), performed without words, evoke the painful emotions that dialogue – even the most poetic – can’t quite capture. Similarly, though they never appear on stage and feature only briefly at the start of the story, the sisters’ parents both loom large as characters throughout, and there are moments when, if we follow the actors’ fearful gazes, we can picture them clearly and feel the anxiety their presence continues to evoke.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

As Sister tries again and again to get clean, the play begins to take on a feeling of repetition – but just as we begin to share Her’s frustration and despair, everything comes slamming to a halt with an emotional gut-punch of a final scene. This is a story in which we understand early on there can be no winners, whatever the final outcome, and that knowledge makes it an intense and often difficult watch. Powerfully written and performed, the play shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which a relationship that should be healthy and innocent can be twisted by the actions of others into something deeply damaging, and how the repercussions of a difficult childhood can continue to be felt even years later.

Poisoned Polluted is at Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November.

Review: Screwed at Theatre503

For a lot of people, 30 is the milestone age when we start to think about our ‘life plan’: to consider who we are, who we want to be, and how we’re going to get there. But what if you don’t have a life plan, and you don’t even know where you’ll end up tomorrow, let alone in five years’ time?

Kathryn O’Reilly’s debut play, Screwed, introduces us to Charlene and Luce, two friends in their early 30s whose only goal is to lurch from one drunken night out to the next, filling the hours in between at their mind-numbingly boring factory job and popping caffeine pills to get through the day. Shrugging off the attempts of friends and family to set them straight, the two girls stumble down the path to self-destruction – but then one night things go too far, putting their dysfunctional friendship to the test, and changing several lives forever.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Samantha Robinson and Eloise Joseph are a perfect team as eternal teenagers Charlene and Luce. O’Reilly’s produced a choppy, off-beat script that allows the friends to fall into a familiar routine and bounce off each other in a way that’s both funny and oddly touching; you get the feeling they’ve had the same conversation many times before, and know each other back to front. And yet there’s a bitchiness underlying almost all their banter that establishes the power balance early on in the play: the brash, confident Luce (Eloise Joseph) calls the shots, while vulnerable, self-loathing Charlene (Samantha Robinson) falls in line, often at the expense of her own happiness. Consequently the friendship becomes both uncomfortable and frustrating to watch, as we not only see both girls wasting the potential they undoubtedly possess, but also find ourselves willing Charlene to break free of Luce’s damaging influence.

If the girls are often difficult for us to like, the other two characters in the play fall at the opposite end of the spectrum; in fact, if anything, they’re a bit too good. The girls’ work colleague – and Charlene’s love interest – Paulo (Stephen Myott-Meadows) is endlessly patient and idealistic, while Luce’s trans parent, Doris (Derek Elroy), is a shining example of someone who saw what they wanted from life and made it happen, against the odds and whilst single-handedly raising a difficult and ungrateful daughter. Both the male characters are admirable and likeable enough, but next to the complexities of the central characters, they do feel just a little one-dimensional.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Sarah Meadows’ production is slick and energetic, and leaves plenty to the audience’s imagination. Much like a drunken night out, some of the most significant events are blacked out, and we (and others) are forced to rely on the girls’ memories – which are unreliable at best, downright dishonest at worst – to piece the story together. The set, designed by Catherine Morgan, is simple yet multifunctional, adapting easily to become everything from factory to hospital, nightclub to kebab van. The concealed mirrors are a nice touch too, allowing for an increasing amount of self-examination from the characters as the play goes on… though whether it does anyone any good is questionable.

Screwed is a hard-hitting play, and not always that enjoyable to watch, though it certainly has its moments. Underneath the bawdy humour lies a cautionary tale about wasted opportunities – in love, work, and life in general – and the party culture that, much like Luce and Charlene’s friendship, does far more harm than good. Kathryn O’Reilly’s decision to explore this social trend with a focus on female characters is refreshing, if a little bit depressing, and while the play doesn’t offer a lot in the way of answers, it certainly paints a vivid picture.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉