Review: Country Music at Omnibus Theatre

This Dartford resident felt very much at home last night watching Simon Stephens’ Country Music, in a new production directed by Scott Le Crass. Set against the symbolic backdrop of the QEII bridge connecting Essex and Kent, the play follows central character Jamie across two decades and four significant encounters, exploring along the way the lasting impact of one bad decision on his life and relationships.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

We first meet Jamie (Cary Crankson) in 1983 as a troubled eighteen-year-old, on the run after committing a vicious assault back home in Gravesend. With him is his almost-girlfriend Lynsey (Rebecca Stone), who’s torn between excitement and anxiety over what lies ahead. Ten years later, Jamie’s doing time for an even more serious crime, and receives a tense visit from his younger brother Matty (Dario Coates). And another decade after that, he’s travelled up north to visit his teenage daughter Emma (Frances Knight) – but it’s not quite the joyous reunion he’d hoped for.

The play’s biggest weakness lies in its failure to make the exact timeline and details of Jamie’s misdemeanours completely clear, but what is very apparent is that the split-second choice he made just prior to his escape across the river with Lynsey has gone on to direct the disappointing course of the rest of his life. A short but powerful final scene brings us back to the start of the story, offering a glimpse of what could have been that also feels like a long overdue opportunity for redemption.

Given the subject matter, it’s to be expected that the play makes for a fairly intense 80 minutes, but director Scott Le Crass and a really excellent cast succeed in wringing every last drop of tension and significance out of both Stephens’ words and, just as importantly, the silences between them. Such is the quality of all four actors’ performances that these – often quite lengthy – pauses in the dialogue are enthralling to watch; I don’t think I’ve ever been so fascinated by two people sitting and eating crisps in complete silence. Cary Crankson in particular gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, his every gesture and expression conveying what the character’s immaturity and intellectual limitations often prevent him being able to put into words.

Though little of the action actually takes place there, Jamie’s home town of Gravesend is crucial to the story; even two decades later, he still speaks of it with a kind of pride, despite the fact it’s the place where his life took such a dramatically wrong turn. He seems particularly fascinated by the QEII bridge, and mentions it often – though when his story begins, it’s little more than an idea (it was built during the 1980s, and didn’t open until 1991). Liam Shea’s striking set also takes inspiration from the bridge’s towering and architecturally impressive structure, with ropes that converge on a simple raised platform in the centre where the action unfolds.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

The tragedy of Country Music is that while it’s all too easy for a life to go off course, getting it back on track can be an impossible struggle. The Jamie who meets his seventeen-year-old daughter is an entirely different man to the volatile teenager who went on the run all those years before – yet he’s still forced to live with the consequences of that boy’s mistakes, however desperately he wishes he could undo them. The plot may at times be slightly muddled, but the sense of waste and irretrievable loss at its heart comes through powerfully in this excellent revival.

Country Music is at the Omnibus Theatre until 23rd June.

Review: Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre

A complex, surprising and very wordy play, Harper Regan by Simon Stephens certainly fulfils the remit for newly formed theatre company Contentment Productions, whose aim is to champion exciting female leads, and who bring the play back to London for the first time since its debut at the National Theatre in 2008. Harper (Emmy Happisburgh) has spent her life being defined by others: she’s a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… Then she receives news that her father’s dying and, having been refused compassionate leave by her creepy boss (Philip Gill), decides it’s about time to start making her own decisions for once.

Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Some of those decisions – like the moment she crushes her wine glass into the neck of Mickey (Marcus McManus), an anti-Semitic journalist who hits on her in the pub, or when she arranges to meet a total stranger in a hotel for sex – seem at first glance random and more than a little questionable. As we learn more about Harper’s history and life back home, however, we begin at least to understand why she needs to make them. The big reveal of the dark secret festering at the heart of her family happens early in Act 2, which places less emphasis on random encounters and instead sees Harper reunited first with her mother (Alma Reising) and later with the husband (Cameron Robertson) and daughter (Bea Watson) she walked out on two days earlier.

The play is split very deliberately into eleven separate scenes, all of which involve a lot of talking on a lot of different topics, covering everything from the Internet to immigration. But amidst all these words, moments of real connection are rare, and feel more precious as a result. Harper herself is an intriguing character, and very well played by Emmy Happisburgh – she’s sympathetic because of her situation, but in a lot of ways her blind refusal to constructively engage with her problems (however relatable it might be) is infuriating. As the play ends, it’s hard to define exactly what journey she’s been on over the past two days, or to tell if anything in her life is really going to change.

With Happisburgh appearing in every scene, the other six members of the impressive cast play ten characters between them. Cameron Robertson neatly encapsulates in his performance the differences between Harper’s husband Seth and her one-off lover James, while Joseph Langdon turns the millennial stereotype on its head as two of the youngest and most insightful characters, both of them played with charisma and humour. A special mention also to Bea Watson, who makes a confident professional debut in this production, standing out particularly as Harper’s confused and isolated teenage daughter Sarah.

Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Pollyanna Newcombe’s production keeps the staging relatively simple, with well-chosen props and use of ambient sound and lighting effects to bring each location believably to life. The play is also notable for its carefully choreographed scene changes, which are not only enjoyable to watch but also allow the audience a little bit of processing time – something that we don’t get a lot of during the dialogue-heavy scenes.

Though the content of the play occasionally shows its age, the themes it explores continue to resonate, and it’s refreshing to experience a story that’s so definitively led by a female character and cast member. This is an accomplished debut production with some great performances, and though Harper’s final destination doesn’t entirely satisfy, her journey is still well worth a watch.

Harper Regan is at Tabard Theatre until 1st June.

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… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Review: Bluebird at The Space

It might be 20 years old, but Simon Stephens’ early play Bluebird could have been written yesterday – and not only because of the many very apt references to the stiflingly hot weather.

A play of two halves, the first act consists of a series of short encounters between taxi driver Jimmy and the various fares he picks up in his cab one summer night in London. As he drives them to their destination, each shares a bit of themselves with him – whether it’s bad jokes, philosophical musings or reliving a personal tragedy – and he in return reveals a little of his own story.

These short sketches are performed by a talented ensemble cast and are by turns funny, moving and intriguing; they feed, ultimately, into Jimmy’s tale, but they also stand alone as a snapshot of London in all its glorious randomness. And with more than one passenger expressing concerns about where we’re all headed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a play for 2018, not 1998.

With the majority of the action taking place in one location – Jimmy’s car – director Adam Hemming keeps things visually interesting with a stage consisting of two intersecting runways, and the audience arranged at the four corners. With each new fare, the actors move to a new location on the stage, giving us a different perspective in more ways than one, and between scenes the characters we’ve met – or are about to meet – continue on with their night.

The only other set consists of a couple of chairs and various car parts which are arranged on stage one by one; during one scene Jimmy holds a steering wheel, for another he and his passenger sit behind the car headlights or between two wing mirrors. This, it turns out, is a neat visual metaphor for the play itself; just as each new encounter provides a little more of the puzzle that is Jimmy, so all the car parts are eventually reunited for the final emotionally charged scene with Claire, his estranged wife.

As the other actors rotate around him, Jonathan Keane maintains a steady, quiet presence throughout as Jimmy. He spends most of Act 1 listening to other people’s problems, taking care of them, and establishing himself firmly in our minds as a good guy – a guy who gets people home safe and lends an ear to those who need it. But there’s just enough of an edge to the character, and Jimmy’s conversations reveal sufficient snippets of information, to allow us to hazard a guess at what’s coming – even before he meets Claire, played by Anna Doolan with a poignant mix of anger, hurt and lingering affection. Their encounter sizzles with a gripping emotional intensity, before coming to a rather abrupt end that leaves us with many unanswered questions about the story we’ve just heard.

Despite this minor frustration, however,ย Bluebird successfully hits the emotional mark with its portrayal of a couple taking their first tentative steps towards some kind of reconciliation, and a man navigating his own unique and bumpy road to redemption. A moving study of grief and guilt, imaginatively staged and set in a London we can all recognise, this revival is well worth a visit.

Bluebird is at The Space until 4th August.

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… ๐Ÿ˜‰