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: The Moor at the Old Red Lion Theatre

You couldn’t get much further from the Yorkshire countryside than the bustling streets of Islington. Yet in the Old Red Lion pub theatre, a little piece of the moor is brought to life with eery authenticity in Catherine Lucie’s haunting psychological thriller. A murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural, this unpredictable tale, directed by Blythe Stewart, keeps us guessing until the very end, and beyond.

Young mother Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is threatened by her drunk, abusive partner after he sees her talking to another man at a party. The next day, she learns the other man has disappeared; not surprisingly, she soon draws her own conclusions about what kept her boyfriend Graeme (Oliver Britten) out so late. So far, so conventional. But then Bronagh’s suspicions start to develop into memories of what she saw that night, memories she relays with growing conviction to local police detective and old family friend, Pat (Jonny Magnanti). Naturally, both he and we regard her reports with equal parts suspicion and sympathy; after all, if she does have an agenda, it’s an understandable one. But does she?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

And this is where things get interesting, because Bronagh’s motivations are the biggest mystery of all. Lucie provides us with just enough detail to piece together a backstory for her central character, but stops short of supplying enough to reach any firm conclusions. We know Bronagh’s lonely, frightened, and possibly depressed following the death of her mother and birth of her baby – events that seem to have happened almost simultaneously three months earlier. But even though she frequently confides in the audience directly, it’s still impossible for us to tell if she’s making things up, having hallucinations, the victim of supernatural forces, actually telling the truth… or a combination of all four. Even when the mystery of Jordan Becker’s disappearance is solved, we’re really none the wiser as to what’s gone on; just as Bronagh reflects on alternative universes created by each choice we make, there are a multitude of possible interpretations of the play’s events, and Lucie leaves us to decide which one we think fits.

This complexity is captured beautifully in Jill McAusland’s performance as Bronagh. A small, vulnerable figure constantly on the verge of tears, at the same time there’s something deliberate and knowing in her exchanges with both Graeme and Pat that keeps us on shifting and uncertain ground. And as it turns out, the two male characters are no less complicated: Oliver Britten’s Graeme, for all his bluster and violent temper, emerges as an unexpectedly sympathetic character, while Jonny Magnanti’s kindly Pat is torn between his duties as a police officer and what is clearly a more complicated history with Bronagh and her family than either is letting on.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Holly Pigott’s set, with a backdrop made up of rotating panels, portrays the moor as a labyrinthine world in which it’s easy to lose yourself. An ever present mist covers the stage, evoking both the wild rural landscape and the self-imposed darkness in which Bronagh and her baby daughter live.

Tense and intriguing throughout, The Moor is a skilfully constructed thriller that twists, turns and keeps us constantly questioning our own judgments. But it’s also a sensitive character study of a young woman trying to find where she belongs in a scary, isolating world – and to some extent, that’s a feeling we can all relate to.

The Moor is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd March.

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Review: Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion Theatre

In Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite, one of the characters relates an anecdote about a man who throws the remains of a sandwich off the top of the Empire State Building. By the time it reaches ground level, it’s gained so much velocity that it kills a woman walking past.

This theme of “freak accidents” runs throughout the play, which muses on the ways that sometimes the smallest and most innocuous of actions can have a dramatic impact. The story begins by telling us that one of the characters, Anthony, was struck by lightning as a child. But was it pure chance, or – as his friend Luce argues – the result of a set of circumstances that, when combined, made it an accident waiting to happen?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Now grown up, Anthony (Niall Bishop) and Luce (Eva-Jane Willis) are on holiday. This, we learn, is an annual event – part of a routine that involves Luce helping the mentally fragile Anthony get back on his feet. Theirs seems an uneasy relationship; Luce’s need to help sees her alternate between patronising and tough love, and both are haunted by the loss some years ago of a mutual friend who they both loved. Into this odd set-up steps the unsuspecting Madeleine (Tanya Fear), a free spirit who never stays in the same place for more than a few months. When both Anthony and Luce fall for her, it seems that history is repeating itself – but first the two friends need to make sense of what happened the last time. This story is revealed slowly, piece by piece, finally coming together as the play reaches its emotional climax.

In a play that’s all about vulnerability, Niall Bishop and Eva-Jane Willis give strong performances as Anthony and Luce, two very different characters who each grapple with their problems in their own way. Anthony is fully aware of his undefined mental illness and makes no attempt to hide it, frequently resorting to violence against himself or others to vent his frustration. Luce, on the other hand, firmly believes she has her life under control, with a “boring” job in risk assessment and a tiny, tidy flat – but the cracks are beginning to show, and there’s a tension in her frame that reveals just how hard she’s having to work to hold everything together. For both of them, their friendship appears more of a duty than a pleasure, until the arrival of Tanya Fear’s Madeleine – lively, confident and unimpeded by bad memories – forces them to face up to the reason they’re so broken, and attempt to move on. The impact of the encounter isn’t only one-way, though; stepping into their world alerts Madeleine to the loneliness that’s an inevitable result of her transient way of life.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

David Loumgair’s production creates an air of suspense and danger throughout; a cluster of bare lightbulbs hangs above a stage surrounded by water, and each new scene is introduced by flickering lights and the ominous crackle of electricity. The deceptively simple set, designed by Anna Reid, makes ingenious use of the limited space available – the wooden deck is revealed to have two large under-floor compartments, from which the characters produce newspapers, drinks and towels, and there’s even an area where they go swimming more than once.

Despite the title, Tiny Dynamite never quite explodes but rather quietly simmers before boiling over in its final moments. As the play ends, we’re left with the sense that not everything is resolved – it would be unrealistic, after all, to suggest a few weeks one summer could erase years of trauma – but that the three characters are now at least in a position to try and move on, and to deal with whatever consequences life throws their way.

Tiny Dynamite is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd February.

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Review: Voices From Home at The Old Red Lion

The inaugural Voices From Home event from Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre brought together writers from the Home Counties and beyond to showcase new work from outside the capital. Four thought-provoking short plays all started from the theme of “trust” before heading off in a variety of directions to bring us an evening populated by outspoken refugees, dodgy psychics, estranged sisters and reluctant lovers.

The latter feature in Love Me Tinder, written by James McDermott from Norfolk and directed by Roman Berry. Emma Zadow and Mauricia Lewis prove that opposites do (eventually) attract, as spiky Tina and sweet-natured Ellie cautiously embark on a Tinder-based romance beset by false starts and misunderstandings. It’s a funny and very relatable piece about the many ways we self-sabotage whilst dating out of fear of getting hurt, but it also explores the unexpected and touching ways in which new love can change us for the better.

There’s a similar blend of laugh out loud humour and human vulnerability in Danielle Pearson’s The History Club, set in the writer’s home county of Berkshire, which examines how grief can make us do extraordinary things. In this case, three women engage the services of a less than convincing psychic to put them in touch with their lost loved ones. Directed by Jennifer Davis, the play sees Vicky Winning clearly enjoying herself as Florence, with moving performances from Anne Rosenfeld, Helen Belbin, and particularly Dominique Moutia as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of a schoolfriend.

The heartbreaking Trust, written by Sussex-based Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Raymond Waring, shows us the awkward reunion of two sisters, played by Alex Reynolds and Abbi Douetil. From a close childhood relationship, marked by a shared love of S Club 7 and a wall chart plotting their heights over the years, Sarah and Lotty become increasingly estranged as their gran’s health deteriorates. It becomes obvious that she effectively raised them in their mum’s frequent absence, and the play ends on a hesitatingly uplifting note as the two attempt to build bridges and come to terms with their loss.

Each Voices From Home event will also feature a Headline Playwright; the first of these is Sevan K. Greene, whose play Asylum – directed by Tim Cook – opened the evening with an alternative and eye-opening view on the first world response to refugees. Lynn (Rosalind Adler) has got an empty house and a kind heart, but never really expected to be taken up on her offer of taking in a Syrian refugee – and when Mohammed (James Hameed) is sprung on her by his caseworker Mike (Matt Kyle), he’s not quite as gushingly grateful as she’d expected. As with all the other plays, Asylum offers lots of laughs, but they grow increasingly uncomfortable as the piece goes on, and we’re forced to examine our own motives, assumptions and reactions to those less fortunate than ourselves.

With so much theatre going on in London every day, it’s easy to forget that there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere too. Voices From Home co-producers Tim Cook and Katharina Rodda have assembled a strong line-up for their first showcase, bringing a little piece of the Home Counties into the capital and proving to any sceptics out there that good theatre can and does exist outside the M25. Here’s hoping we don’t have too long to wait for the next evening; I’m looking forward to seeing what my home county of Kent has to offer…

For more details about Voices From Home and Broken Silence Theatre, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.


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Review: Talk Radio at the Old Red Lion Theatre

We’re taught from a young age that telling the truth is important. We’re also taught that everyone has the right to say what they think. But what happens when those two things combine to create something potentially harmful, not just to another person, but to society in general? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech – and what can we do about it?

Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio might have been written 30 years ago, but the issues it addresses are as fresh and current as ever. Barry Champlain, the shock jock radio DJ in Bogosian’s play, is angry, damaged, a heavy drinker and drug taker who’s incapable of maintaining a healthy adult relationship with anyone, even the people who like him. But despite appearances, his mission with the late-night radio show Night Talk – in which he encourages people to phone in and say what’s on their mind – isn’t to spread hate; instead he’s trying, in his own backwards way, to stop it. Unfortunately, his listeners aren’t getting the message… and despite Barry’s best efforts, it seems the phone is never going to stop ringing – particularly as the show’s been so successful that its bosses want to roll it out nationally.

Photo credit: Cameron Harle

Perhaps ironically in a play about a radio host who nobody ever sees, Matthew Jure is fascinating to watch as the chameleon-like Barry, adapting his approach at lightning speed to suit whoever’s on the end of the phone line, with the face behind the voice becoming increasingly haggard and desperate as he finally realises the monster he’s created. Isolated for the entirety of the play behind glass in his soundproof booth, he becomes almost an exhibit for his audience to examine; for better or worse, everyone thinks they know him – and have no hesitation about telling him their darkest secrets – but monologues from Barry’s three colleagues reveal the complexities behind the facade.

These three roles – nicely played by Molly McNerney, Andy Secombe and George Turvey – are necessarily a bit sketchy; their purpose is to support and facilitate Barry, both professionally and personally. The cast is completed by real-life Radio One DJ Ceallach Spellman, in a brilliant turn as vacuous teenager Kent. Invited to the studio, he’s both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, representing for Barry everything that’s gone wrong in society.

There are two more stars in Sean Turner’s production: Max Dorey’s set, a meticulously detailed reproduction of a 1980s radio station, and Dan Bottomley’s sound design. Not surprisingly, the script calls for a lot of interaction between Barry and the recorded voices of his many callers, and this works seamlessly throughout – it’s easy to believe you’re watching an actual radio show being recorded.

Photo credit: Cameron Harle

Talk Radio is undoubtedly entertaining and on several occasions completely gripping, but it’s hard to leave with a smile knowing that the voices we’ve just heard haven’t gone away, and probably aren’t going to. The play certainly won’t make you feel any better about the state of the human race; if anything, Barry’s final rant is directed as much at today’s theatre audience as his Ohio-based listeners, and none of us come out of it very well. Those who spread hate aren’t the only target of his anger – he also loathes the banality of those who have nothing at all to say (I can imagine a 2017 version of Barry being incensed by the recent Love Island frenzy), and the play’s ultimate message is both damning and faintly depressing. You’d like to think that this could be a force for change, but 30 years on the sad truth is – to use Barry’s own words – it looks like we’re stuck with each other.


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