Review: Plastic at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Some people look back on their school days as the best of their lives. For others, the only good thing about their teenage years is that they’re over and done with. But how much does that period between childhood and adulthood shape the course of the rest of our lives – and if we knew what lay ahead, how many of us might have done things differently?

Kenneth Emson’s Plastic, directed by Josh Roche, begins in a jumble of timelines, as Kev and Ben – now grown men – reminisce about a teenage football match, at which the star player caught the eye of a popular, pretty 15-year-old girl. That, we’re told, is where it all begins – and although it takes a while to straighten out the tangled threads of the two men’s memories, the story that emerges proves more than worth the effort.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Kev (Mark Weinman) used to be the captain of the school football team – which in their town, he tells us with a comical little bow, is a big deal. Or at least it was at the time; now he’s left school and is starting to realise his former popularity counts for little out in the real world. The one bright spot in his mundane existence is his girlfriend, Lisa (Madison Clare), the only person who still looks up to him as the hero he once was. And she’s told him tonight’s the night…

Back at school, Ben (Thomas Coombes) doesn’t fit in; the daily target of bullies, the only way he can cope is to “think Columbine, think Virginia Tech, think Sandy Hook… and breathe”. Luckily, he’s got Jack (Louis Greatorex), who’s been his best mate since forever, even though hanging out with Ben means he inevitably gets bullied too. Ben, Jack and Lisa used to be best friends, until they went to high school and she joined the popular crowd – but this afternoon they’re all bunking off together, and Jack’s hoping it’ll be just like old times.

As we follow the four characters through their day, there’s a mounting tension as Kev waits for Lisa, and the bullies wait for Ben. We know something’s brewing, but when it comes the play’s climax is genuinely shocking, largely because it hits us from so way, way out in the blue. From a narrative point of view this twist in the tale is an impressive feat of misdirection, but it also sits a little awkwardly against the backdrop of all that’s gone before, and feels like it introduces a whole new set of issues which then don’t get dealt with in the play’s closing minutes.

Emson’s script is unusual, a rapid fire rhyming verse that somehow still feels very natural in the mouths of teenagers, and which is brought brilliantly to life by an excellent cast. Thomas Coombes stands out as the tormented Ben, who’s exactly the kind of kid you’d expect to constantly be “thinking Columbine”; we feel bad for him, but at the same time we can’t help but be repelled by his intensity and general strangeness. In her professional stage debut, Madison Clare also really shines as Lisa who, despite being young, pretty and popular, is anything but a mean girl. She wants more out of life than just being one of the popular clique, and there’s a wistfulness to Clare’s performance that’s captivating to watch.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Another star of the show is Peter Small’s memorable and atmospheric lighting design, consisting of several bare light bulbs which are propelled across the stage by the actors and change colour seemingly at their command. This results in some powerful and poignant moments, particularly later in the play when each of the characters gets a moment in the (literal) spotlight to reflect on what’s gone before, and what could lie ahead for them.

Gripping, original and entirely unexpected, Plastic is also a pretty tough watch. The play paints a decidedly bleak picture of the school years; this is not a story that sets out to inspire nostalgia in the lucky few who actually enjoyed that time of their life. That doesn’t mean it won’t bring back memories – only that they’re unlikely to be good ones.

Plastic is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 21st April.

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Review: Every Seven Years at New Wimbledon Studio

Apparently, it takes seven years to completely regenerate every cell in your body. So technically, you could say that seven years from now you’d be a completely different person. Theatre Bench’s Every Seven Years puts that theory to the test, following the relationship between Pam and Ralph over 63 years, from the ages of 21 to 84, stopping in with them at seven-year intervals. During that time, we see them fall in love, get married, have children, laugh, dance, argue, get drunk and grow old, experiencing together all the ups and downs that life brings with it.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter
Photo credit: Ashley Carter

I had high hopes for this play, part of Wimbledon’s Illuminate Festival, because the summary put me in mind of Patch of Blue’s Beans on Toast (part of last year’s Illuminate, coincidentally), which I loved; the two have a similar focus on memory and how it’s often the little moments that make a life what it is. And last night I left the New Wimbledon Studio – rapidly becoming one of my favourite fringe theatres – with the same warm fuzzy feeling I got from Beans.

Charlotte Baker and Ben Fensome, who wrote the show, play Pam and Ralph throughout their lives, subtly altering their appearance and body language with each new scene so that it becomes easy to forget these are two young actors playing octogenarians. They ride the emotional rollercoaster along with the audience, one minute laughing at each other’s accents (she doesn’t understand his Wiltshire slang any more than he gets her Geordie), the next coping with a crisis that threatens to end their marriage.

Director Scott Le Crass places the two inside a ring of cardboard boxes, from which they produce shopping bags, party hats and countless cups of tea (because, as we all know, there is no situation in life – good or bad – that can’t be improved by a nice cuppa). This simple design gives the play an unsettled feeling, as if Pam and Ralph’s lives are always on the verge of momentous change – which of course, in this play, they are.

The ingenious seven-year format was inspired in part by Granada Television’s Up series of documentaries, which has been following the lives of fourteen children since 1964 by returning to interview them every seven years. By just dropping in every once in a while, the play allows the audience to join the dots and decide for ourselves how its characters got from there to here.

The moments we share aren’t necessarily the big ones – we see Pam discover Ralph’s about to propose, for instance, but not the actual proposal, and there’s a lovely moment before her 50th birthday party when the two are alone, and she describes from memory every detail of his hands. Then again, life isn’t just about the big events; sometimes it’s about two 84-year-olds sitting in their kitchen in the middle of the night, drinking tea and reflecting on the years they’ve had together.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter
Photo credit: Ashley Carter

Every Seven Years invites us in to a love story that’s as messy as it is beautiful; neither Pam nor Ralph is perfect, but they’re perfect together. And the play is a heartwarming reminder that while a lot may change in seven years – events, circumstances, even our physical bodies – some things last forever.


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