Review: Sticks and Stones at Tristan Bates Theatre

Written by Dameon Garnett in response to the ongoing debate around free speech, Sticks and Stones is a fascinating two-hander that explores how we talk about issues of race, class and privilege in 2020 Britain. In particular, the play asks where we draw the line between free speech and hate speech, and to what extent the opinions we share should be policed and punished by society.

Afua (Eva Fontaine) is a senior manager in a secondary school. Tina (Catherine Harvey) works in the kitchen. The two are friends, who socialise outside work and whose sons used to play together as children. When Afua is advised of offensive jokes shared by Tina on her public Facebook page, she has to take action – but what begins as a professional dispute soon turns personal, and escalates into a bitter conflict that brings to the surface previously unspoken resentments on both sides.

The play is only an hour long, but that short time is full to bursting with persuasive, thought-provoking lines of argument, and the traverse staging by director Rasheka Christie-Carter means that the debate pings back and forth across Afua’s office like a tennis match (there’s even a change of ends halfway through). There’s a discussion about what privilege means, about what constitutes hate speech, and about why it’s acceptable for Afua to be pictured at a protest march in a controversial outfit, but not for Tina to share a few jokes with her friends online. And, crucially, though their clash ends with a clear victor, the behaviour of both parties during the discussion prevents the audience deriving much satisfaction from her triumph.

Garnett’s skilful writing is brought to life in two powerhouse performances from Eva Fontaine and Catherine Harvey; the bitter tension between the two women, particularly in the second half of the play, is so convincing it becomes impossible to look away. Garnett has created two diametrically opposed characters, but neither is so extreme in their views that we can’t relate to them or recognise in them people we know, either in real life or online. Consequently, it doesn’t take long for the audience to become completely engaged in their argument, whether we’re firmly on one side throughout or shifting back and forth as the play goes on.

Sticks and Stones plays out on a small stage a much bigger debate currently rumbling – and occasionally raging – throughout Britain. For those who’ve already picked a side in that debate, the play is unlikely to win any hearts and minds for the opposing team. But this compelling, provocative drama certainly asks some uncomfortable questions, which should at least challenge the views we hold, and make us aware of the potential damage such bitter division can cause.

Sticks and Stones is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 21st March.

Review: The Apologists at Omnibus Theatre

The public apology is far from a new phenomenon, but in the era of online news and social media, it’s becoming more and more of a common occurrence. In The Apologists, three stories are told – by the same performer and director (Gabrielle Scawthorn and Jane Moriarty respectively) but different writers – each exploring a different aspect of a topic that turns out to provide a surprising quantity of food for thought.

In Excuses by Iskandar Sharazuddin, the first female Chief Executive of the NHS goes head to head with a terrified mother who said something bad in the heat of the moment as she watched her young daughter fight for life. The only problem is, they’re the same woman. One knows she must apologise, and does so in the blandest, most corporate way possible, while the other argues her case in far more emotional terms. The seriousness of the incident, which appears to have racial undertones, is never denied – but as we watch the story unfold, the true question at the heart of this piece emerges: why does this woman have to choose to be either Sarah’s mum or NHS boss – and if that division is expected of her by society, how can we then justify judging one persona by the actions of the other?

In the second piece, Seven, The Sweetest Hour by Cordelia O’Neill, a social media influencer comes to terms with the fact that her work has caused real harm – and worse, it’s been doing so for some time. This piece is particularly topical given recent news headlines, and asks if the validation we may personally receive from a witty tweet or savagely worded review is ever worth the damage it could inflict on someone else’s mental health. The piece stops short, however, of simply slamming Holly for her actions, focusing instead on an examination of her own mental well-being, and delving into why it’s so important to her to get that validation, whatever it might cost.

Finally, in New Universe by Lucinda Burnett, a woman watches, appalled, as her male boss issues a meaningless public apology for horrific crimes committed on his watch as CEO of a global aid organisation. In his mind, the damage is already done and he didn’t personally inflict it, so saying sorry is little more than a duty he has to get through before lunch. To her, however, his failure to really take responsibility or engage with what’s happened is the ultimate betrayal, and leads her to consider a course of action she would never previously have thought possible. This piece is a particularly tough one to watch, as it touches on issues of sexual violence and victim blaming, through the eyes of a woman who knows all too well the trauma they can cause.

All three monologues are performed by Gabrielle Scawthorn, who proves extraordinarily adept at switching characters – not just between pieces but also within them. With only very minor wardrobe and set changes to visually distinguish one story from the next, all three women nonetheless feel distinct and well-developed. Scawthorn is also a very engaging performer, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the emotional turmoil she portrays.

For a society that’s grown accustomed to public figures issuing apologies, it’s easy to pass judgment, and dismiss what we see as insincerity or the frantic damage control efforts of an unseen PR machine. And sometimes, certainly, that verdict will be right on the money. But The Apologists asks us to look a little deeper, past the carefully worded statements or overblown displays of emotion, and to consider what might be going on behind the scenes, before we make that judgment. With strong writing and compelling performance, it’s definitely one to see this week.

The Apologists is at Omnibus Theatre until 8th March.

Review: Meat at Theatre503

A finalist in Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award in 2018, Gillian Greer’s Meat is just as topical, and troubling, two years later. The play follows exes Max (India Mullen) and Ronan (Sean Fox) through one messy, bruising evening at his fancy Dublin restaurant. Successful blogger Max has come to let Ronan know that in her upcoming book, she intends to reveal he once sexually assaulted her at a party. Horrified, he protests his innocence, claiming to have no memory or knowledge of the night in question – while his loyal restaurant manager Jo (Elinor Lawless) wonders why Max has waited until now to talk about such a traumatic event in her life.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

These are complex issues, and the play explores that complexity in an open, thought-provoking manner, ending both literally and figuratively on an unanswered question. Most importantly, though we never doubt Max’s account, Greer avoids painting a picture of villain and victim; it’s far more nuanced than that. Ronan did “a shit thing”, but that doesn’t automatically make him a monster; Max may well benefit financially from putting the incident in her book, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t have an effect on her. It’s particularly interesting to note that all three characters begin the evening with a fixed definition of what rape means, and to watch as those clear-cut lines begin to blur and shift.

Though all the action takes place over one evening, the timeline of those few hours is non-linear. This allows us to observe certain events, and in particular Ronan’s behaviour towards both women, in the light of later revelations – though it does also present something of a logistical challenge, given that each scene concludes with a bit more food or drink symbolically smeared across Ronan’s previously pristine walls and floor. It’s testament to the clarity of both Greer’s writing and Lucy Jane Atkinson’s direction that we never find ourselves lost or confused as to where in the story a scene is located.

The building tension within and between the two principal characters is played very convincingly by India Mullen and Sean Fox. As Max, Mullen visibly unravels as the wine flows and Ronan continues to resist giving her the answers she wants, while Fox’s performance swiftly makes it clear that beneath his amiable exterior Ronan was – and perhaps still is – more than capable of doing what Max claims. Meanwhile Elinor Lawless provides some much needed comic relief as the ever watchful Jo, but she also has a much more pivotal role: that of the outside observer, the one who listens to both sides and voices the opinions that always accompany an accusation of sexual violence.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The choice of setting is deliberately uncomfortable, setting the balance of power in Ronan’s favour – in more ways than one, as it turns out – from the off. Rachel Stone’s set is visually striking, and in line with the restaurant’s policy (“Vegetarian? Fuck off. Vegan? Fuck off.”) it’s in your face, makes no apology, and should probably come with some kind of trigger warning. Pig carcasses adorn the walls along with artistic renderings of raw meat, while in front of them Ronan cheerfully explains how foie gras is made to a less than enthusiastic Max. In the background, Annie May Fletcher’s sound design maintains a hum of background conversation, reminding us the pair are not alone, but acknowledges the intimacy between them at key moments by drowning out the crowd with the sound of a heartbeat.

It’s taken two years for Greer’s play to make it to the stage, but it’s been more than worth the wait.┬áMeat is an intense and thoughtful play, which doesn’t spoon feed answers to its audience but instead poses a set of questions and leaves us to process them in our own way and within the frame of our own experiences. It may not be a comfortable watch for everyone, but it is a vitally important one.

Meat is at Theatre503 until 14th March.

Review: Flights at Omnibus Theatre

Flights by John O’Donovan, on paper, is a play about three men, who meet as they’ve done for years to mark the anniversary of their friend’s death. But it’s much more than that; this is a story about a time, and a place, and a generation of young Irish men who could have left, but somehow ended up not going anywhere. It’s a story about loss – of life, love, opportunity – but also about friendship and the bonds that can hold people together, for better or worse, against all odds and expectations.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

Liam was seventeen years old when he was killed in a tragic road accident on this night seventeen years ago. His old friends, Barry (Colin Campbell), Pa (Rhys Dunlop) and Cusack (Conor Madden), are disappointed to find they’re the only ones to turn up this year for his anniversary, but nonetheless decide to make the best of it – particularly since Barry is about to leave for London with his long-term girlfriend Roisin, and new dad Cusack is having his first night out in months. As they reminisce, it becomes clear that while the three men’s lives may have gone in different directions, the circles in which they move have changed very little. And though the cast consists of just three actors, and the action never leaves the run-down clubhouse where they meet, O’Donovan’s beautifully written script paints an intricate picture of a whole community that seems frozen in time.

This feeling intensifies all the more as each of the three steps forward at different moments to deliver a monologue in the voice of their dead friend. Through these, we can start to piece together what happened, and why, and feel afresh the tragedy of a young life wasted – but also to understand that it could have been any one of these men who was lost on the road that, or any, night. Back in the present moment, and none of them is completely satisfied with their lot: Barry is full of anxiety at the prospect of leaving town at last; Pa just found himself homeless and unemployed; and even Cusack, who seems to have it all, questions what he could possibly have done to deserve it.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

The play, directed by Thomas Martin, isn’t action-packed or fast-paced, but it doesn’t need to be. Instead it follows the evening almost in real time, allowing the story to unfold through the interactions of the increasingly inebriated friends. Some of these result in unexpectedly tender moments, particularly in Act 2, while others are exactly as you’d expect when three old school friends get together: drinking games, darts, drugs and banter are very much the order of the day. Colin Campbell, Rhys Dunlop and Conor Madden are universally outstanding, utterly compelling and convincing in every detail; their chemistry as an ensemble is spot on, and their individual performances spell-binding. And the production looks stunning, too – Naomi Faughnan’s set, lit by candles and littered with what we assume to be years worth of discarded cans, feels both literally and figuratively like a shrine to Liam’s fading memory.

A poignant and powerful piece of theatre, Flights will resonate most strongly with people – particularly men – who’ve experienced what it was like to grow up in a tight-knit rural community. For the rest of us, the play is an evocative portrayal of that experience, and much like its central character, it won’t soon be forgotten.

Flights is at the Omnibus Theatre until 29th February.

Review: Netflix and Chill at Drayton Arms Theatre

I first encountered Tom Stocks’ Netflix and Chill in 2015, when I caught a ten-minute extract from what was then a very new work at an Actor Awareness scratch night. At the time, I described the scene – depicting a disastrous date – as light relief following some pretty heavy material from other writers. So it’s interesting to see that although that scene remains a pivotal moment in the full-length play, the story that frames it has taken a considerably darker turn in the intervening years.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

Ben (Tom Stocks) is a working class chef, who’s struggling. His estranged mum (Julie Binysh) has just come back into the picture after leaving an abusive relationship; he keeps getting stood up by his Tinder dates; and Sophie (Emily Ellis), the girl he’s fancied for years, just went home with his infinitely more confident and charming mate Ryan (Joseph Lindoe). Inspired by Stocks’ own family experience, the play explores male mental health, and in particular the fear that talking about how you feel can somehow make you less of a man.

The play, directed by Luke Adamson, is very much one of two halves. Act 1 sets the scene, introducing all the characters – who also include Jill (Charlotte Price), a waitress at the local cafe – and firmly establishing Ben as the beta to Ryan’s alpha male; the nice guy who seems destined to always finish last. It’s in Act 2, however, that it starts to become clear what the story is actually all about – and no, despite the title, it’s not (just) sex. As Ben protests, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’s fine and doesn’t need therapy, the play builds towards a powerful and unexpected conclusion that really makes us stop and think, not just about what’s gone before on stage, but about men we may know who possibly aren’t quite as fine as they let on.

Knowing that the play began with the date scene and grew from there makes a lot of sense, because it’s around this point that the play really begins to hit its stride, drawing the audience into the story in a way Act 1 never quite manages (possibly a result of the Inbetweeners style war stories exchanged by the lads, which are funny but – let’s be honest – pretty gross). The use of the inner monologue, played as a voiceover to give us an insight into what each character is really thinking, works very well during the ill-fated date, making both Ben and Sophie relatable for an audience torn throughout between laughter and embarrassment. The same can’t quite be said for the opening scene, in which Ben has an awkward encounter with his mum; the interjections from inside his head feel at this point a bit too much like a device, to fill in the back story neither character is willing to speak about out loud, and at times risk drowning out the actual dialogue.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

There are parts of Netflix and Chill that still feel a bit underdeveloped, but it’s encouraging to see how the play has grown since that first ten-minute snippet four years ago, and the important message that now comes through loud and clear about male mental health and the responsibility we all have to encourage frank and open conversation. A powerful and thought-provoking piece of writing, with much to recommend it.

Netflix and Chill is at Drayton Arms Theatre until 29th February.