Review: Four O’Clock Flowers at The Space

There could be few more topical subjects for a play in London just now than knife crime, an issue that’s been dominating the headlines more and more in recent months. In Louise Breckon-Richards’ Four O’Clock Flowers, we don’t see the crime itself – instead the play’s focus is very much on the aftermath and those left behind. Two mothers thrown together in the worst possible circumstances find unlikely solace in their encounter, as each struggles to come to terms with her own grief and guilt.

Unlike some other plays on this topic, Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t approach the subject matter with a strongly political agenda. There’s no explicit commentary on the issue of race, for instance; no mention of police cuts, and only one brief reference to gang culture. What it does do very well, however, is to expose the tragic waste of not one but two young lives, and to tackle the preconception that anyone who commits such a crime must be an inherently bad person. It’s obvious that neither mother saw the tragedy coming, and even for the audience – who meet one of the boys very briefly in the play’s opening and closing scenes – it’s hard to understand how this considerate, level-headed young man could have ended up where he is.

There’s no doubt that the play does make you think about the impact and the underlying causes of knife crime, and that it challenges one or two automatic assumptions that tend to accompany any discussion on the subject – but much more than that, it makes you feel. The fragile connection between Maya and Anna is very poignantly played out by Sophie Cartman and Caroline Trowbridge, each of them revealing their vulnerability and pain, but also their strength, at different moments. Leon Finnan also impresses as teenager Joshua, who only appears in two scenes but in between is a constant presence on and around the stage, a haunting reminder to both women of what could have been.

The story takes place over 24 hours, following Maya’s vigil for her son at the spot where he died. The action moves at a steady pace for the majority of the 70-minute running time, but then comes to a rather abrupt end after skipping from 7am to 4pm. The final image of the two women standing together is nonetheless very striking, and the scene that follows certainly packs an emotional punch. There’s also a lovely moment early on in Kesia Guillery’s production where audience members are invited to lay flowers at the shrine that sits at centre stage. One small complaint from the third row: there are important details that are referred to in the script, but very easily missed by audience members without a clear sightline, due to their being very low down or even on the floor.

Knife crime is a hugely complex and distressing subject, and Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t set out to offer solutions, but it does paint a very insightful and moving picture of the devastation this violence can leave behind.  Sensitively written and poignantly performed, this debut play brings The Space’s annual Foreword Festival to a powerful conclusion.

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Review: Fox Hunting at the Courtyard Theatre

With the soaring rate of knife crime in London making almost daily headlines, David Alade’s Fox Hunting couldn’t be any more topical. Based on transcripts of interviews with south Londoners, this verbatim piece explores the multiple and far-reaching effects of knife crime on the lives of five young men, and in doing so turns faceless statistics into an urgent human crisis.

The five guys in question have gathered to pay their respects – although to whom, we don’t yet know. When one of their number recounts an incident on the way in which he had to swerve to avoid a fox in his path, a surprising debate is sparked over the nature of innocence, and what it is and isn’t okay to do if you think your own safety might be at risk. From there, it’s a small side step to get to the heart of the play, as each member of the group shares his own unique experience. Some of them were victims of knife crime, others were perpetrators; all have had their lives changed irrevocably by what happened, and it’s only now that they’re starting to wonder what it was all for.

It’s a cleverly constructed piece of writing from 21-year-old Alade, who also performs – alongside Chris J. Gordon, Devante Mavour, Joshua Lewis and Quinton Arigi. Each of the five stories stands alone, with the other actors stepping in to play supporting roles, and yet they’re united by a strong discursive thread that allows those most affected by knife crime to be part of finding the solution. What emerges very clearly from the play is the realisation that for many young people, in London and elsewhere, the idea of leaving home unarmed is as unthinkable as heading out without their phone, keys or wallet. There’s a constant fear of violence which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s this attitude, Alade argues, that needs to be addressed if there’s to be any hope of halting the increasing rate of knife crime.

Despite the heavy subject matter and some moments that are genuinely quite frightening (particularly if you sit close to the aisle), the play also contains a surprising amount of proper laugh out loud humour. These aren’t hardened criminals; they’re just five young, normal, likeable guys, who all have plenty to live for – education, career, love, faith – and are just going about their everyday life in the best way they know how. It just so happens that everyday life involves carrying a knife, and being prepared to use it.

Photo credit: David Alade

The five actors all perform with energy and conviction, unafraid to engage directly with the audience, and creating characters who are as believable in moments of violence as of reflection. Their stories might not always be the ones that make headlines – with nearly 40,000 knife crime offences recorded in the UK last year, it’s no wonder we only tend to hear about the most serious – but that doesn’t make them any less devastating to that one individual whose life has been changed forever, and that raw emotion really comes through in each of the performances on stage.

What is clear from reading the papers is that something needs to be done, but first it’s important to try and understand the root causes of the problem. Fox Hunting is a clear and powerfully effective attempt to do just that – let’s hope both the play and its talented writer have the successful future they deserve.

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… 😉