Review: An Injury at Ovalhouse

Kieran Hurley’s An Injury is unsettling from the start, as the four performers walk on to the set deliberately looking around to catch the audience’s eye. This sets the tone for a play whose aim is to remind us of our own complicity in the violence that increasingly dominates our everyday world – whether that violence is happening right in front of us or on the other side of the world, and whether we’re participants or merely observers.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

This is the story of four characters – three of them living in the same anonymous city, the other in a foreign country. Writer Danny is desperately trying to make his mark by writing something revolutionary. Joe’s a drone pilot haunted by a small figure he saw running towards the target seconds before his last missile hit. Morvern longs to escape her temp job inputting the names of rejected asylum seekers. And then there’s Isma, a young girl in a far-off country – and that’s all we know about Isma. As the four characters’ stories begin to intersect, the actors take turns playing them, reinforcing the idea that these people could be any one of us. Meanwhile the others narrate for our benefit, never allowing us to forget that we’re in a theatre and there are lessons to be learnt. As we build towards a dramatic climax, it seems inevitable that one of the characters must take action against the status quo… but will they, or will they simply continue in their numb acceptance of the way things are?

The delivery of the play, which is directed by alex swift – who previously collaborated with Kieran Hurley on Heads Up – is unusual, disorientating and potentially divisive. The production has an unpolished feel in both performance and design; all four actors read from their scripts, although it’s never completely clear if this is from necessity or if it’s just another way to remind us we’re watching a piece of theatre. The only other props are four chairs, which are rearranged as each new scene is introduced by a burst of white noise and an instruction to “zoom in” or “zoom out”. This simplicity of design means our attention is entirely focused on the script, which describes in detail everything we can’t see or hear, and is delivered with passion and real anger by the cast (Khalid Abdalla, Julia Taudevin, Yusra Warsama and Alex Austin). But the lack of variety in scenes also makes the piece hard to define – it falls somewhere between a play and a lecture, with the actors frequently breaking the fourth wall to challenge us directly about our own response to what we’re seeing.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Hurley’s script is undoubtedly thought-provoking, asking some brutal and highly topical questions about ends and means, which linger in the mind as we step back into the real world. There’s so much to consider, and delivered at such a rapid-fire pace, that it’s almost impossible to take it all in at a single hit. An Injury is a call to action – although what action we’re being invited to take remains unclear; the only truly unforgivable response to the play, it seems, is continued apathy.

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… 😉

Review: Big Guns at the Yard Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Big Guns at The Yard is a new play by Nina Segal, after her debut at the Gate Theatre in 2016, with In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises). Featuring a cast of two, Debra Baker and Jessye Romeo, and skilfully directed by Dan Hutton, Big Guns is a nerve-shreddingly uncomfortable watch about the anxiety of living in our modern western world where everyone is emotionally isolated but obsessively cyber-connecting.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

The plot of the piece is somewhat difficult to pin down without writing a thesis on the script, but it is perhaps best described as a dramatic poem, in a modern style, split between two voices, dealing with the growing fear of terrorism or attack, from the perspective of a forum board commenter, or serial tweeter. This ever-present sense of foreboding and threat is symbolised verbally by the oft-repeated phrase “The man with the gun
” This means that there is a third presence in the room with these women, invisible to us, unknown beyond his gender and the fact that he is armed, but still demanding that they validate, investigate and justify their own existences.

The style of the show is perhaps a visual radio play. The beauty and power of the production is in the smooth and meticulously paced patter between the two unnamed speakers, and a gorgeous horror soundscape designed by Kieran Lucas. At multiple points the stage is plunged into darkness and all we experience is either the amplified and sometimes distorted voices of the actresses, playing over a series of ominous chord progressions or precise and stilted sound effects. There is very little blocking to speak of, and the production makes no apologies for that. The performers are static and seated on the floor of the sloped stage for almost all of the production, but the whirling stream of consciousness style of the poetic text cares neither for naturalism nor visual pieces as we’re thrown somewhat chaotically through a series of interlocking vignettes, and provides all the movement that we could wish for – we just hear it instead of seeing it.

“Big Guns,” the back of the programme states, “is the prickling at the back of your neck, the faint taste of blood on your teeth, the could-be sounds of a strange figure in the semi-darkness. The YouTube clip you hope doesn’t load but can’t help watching.” And yes, Big Guns is all those things, however due to the jarring and whirling speed at which the script is delivered, as well as how the writing leaps over and through narratives with complications, contradictions and repetitions, you emerge from the play’s conclusion with not a lot more understanding of the play’s subject than when you went in.

Segal’s script is packed full of details and imagery, whipped through by Romeo and Baker with a delicious enjoyment of diction and a verve of delivery. It is confusing, mesmerising and captivating. You may not understand every second – hell, there was a good ten minutes where I possessed not a clue what was happening – but it’s done well and with enough grace that you go with it in the hope that the message might permeate your eardrums via some kind of verbal osmosis. Perhaps to some people’s tastes this might be too abstract and pretentious in terms of the script’s ambivalence for conventional narrative or character – the actors are deliberately non-characterised and are in essence interchangeable in terms of their delivery and viewpoints, but what matters is the poetry and meter of Segal’s verse, and here Baker and Romeo shine as pure masters/mistresses of their craft. Baker is in equal parts gleeful and nonchalant, but possesses moments of unbridled pathos in the face of Romeo’s antagonism and provocation. The stunningly beautiful Romeo allows Segal’s words to trip and fly from her mouth, her eyes glittering in the red darkness, drawing us in and devastating us with emotion in the final fourth-wall breaking moments of the production.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

There is an element of the production that speaks about our over-reliance on technology and social media, and our inability to restrain ourselves from online obsessions, and though I didn’t quite get how that ties into the afore/ever-mentioned “Man With The Gun”, in general the atmosphere and tension created by the piece is phenomenal. It plays to our own paranoia and fears, of violence, of disruption and chaos, and it does this wonderfully well.

Obviously the topical timing with the recent attack in London pushes the subject matter’s concerns right to the front of our minds, but the writer is skilful enough to not languish on gratuity. The similarities between us and the speakers may be narrowing with every passing crisis that we face, as unfathomable violence keeps breaking into our consciousness, but ultimately the play’s message is one of positivity and togetherness. There is a way to beat the Man With The Gun. Lose the fear. Embrace acceptance, and – ironically considering the play’s lack of visual elements – open your eyes to who exactly the Man With The Gun is.

Big Guns is a powerful piece of writing that makes a good play – but potentially an even better podcast.

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… 😉

Interview: Alex Packer, Ballistic

In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, before taking his own life. After the attack, a lengthy document emerged that came to be known as his manifesto, in which he outlined his motives for the killings. It’s this manifesto and his online diaries that inspired Alex Packer to write Ballistic, an original story based on real events.

Ballistic is a coming of age story with a difference,” explains Alex. “It’s about a troubled young man struggling with masculinity, isolation and his place in the world. It’s about the potential dangers of what can happen if we don’t identify and help people like this.

“Before he committed the horrific mass shooting in 2014, Elliot Rodger published a 100,000-word manifesto about his life. I was shocked, uncomfortable but also very sad when I read it. He also kept a YouTube channel where he filmed himself. I wanted to understand the chain of events that can lead to a young man doing such a thing. After reading the manifesto and watching his videos, I had some answers but many more questions. I adapted, adjusted and created the play around some of the elements in his story.”

The one-man show is performed by Mark Conway, who’s been involved since the beginning. “We’ve been creating it for a year and a half,” says Alex. “I started writing it for Mark and we worked for several months on writing drafts, reading it aloud and adjusting it. The final piece in the puzzle was working with Anna Marsland, who’s been a fantastic collaborator. I feel it’s important to work on something as sensitive as this as a team in order to look at it from all angles and perspectives. As collaborators we’re always looking for the most effective way of telling this story.”

Has it been difficult to work with such chilling material? “It has and it hasn’t,” says Alex. “Because the play is a careful mix of truth and fiction, we’re able to find moments of lightness in the story too. Even though Elliot’s story is a dark one, as a writer I have to have a certain amount of empathy in my character in order to try and convey all the parts of his life sensitively. Reading about his life in his manifesto, I’m particularly curious about the near-misses – the what-ifs. He wanted friendship, wealth, love – normal things that normal people want. If key moments in his life went slightly differently would the ending have been the same?”

Alex believes the play has a message for everyone: “We see and read about characters like Elliot all the time. I think we all need to heighten our awareness and sensitivity with vulnerable and troubled young people. We need to avoid labelling them and pushing them away. Instead, we should ask the right questions and work together to prevent them going down the wrong path.”

Three years on from the events that inspired Ballistic, similar attacks continue to dominate the headlines. “I’m not sure the world has really learnt anything from Elliot Rodger’s story,” says Alex. “My catalyst for writing this play was the seemingly unending reoccurrence of violent attacks that were being reported. The media crave these dramatic stories and by giving them such prominence in newspapers and TV, I feel it’s extremely precarious. We need to ask why we broadcast these stories like this.

“The world seems to be filling up with fear, alienation and anger. The expansion of these ideas combined with lonely and troubled individuals are a toxic mix. It’s becoming easier and more comfortable to avoid real human interaction and put the blinkers on. I feel we need to notice this and be aware of its dangers.”

Above all, Alex hopes that Ballistic will prove thought-provoking. “The play isn’t about answers. I think the best theatre asks questions of its audience and keeps them thinking about it long after the curtain call.”

Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre from 27th February to 17th March.

Review: Homecomings: The Monkey at Theatre503

John Stanley’s gritty debut play The Monkey, one of the winners of Synergy Theatre Project’s national prison scriptwriting competition, is a fast-moving, plain-talking black comedy that somehow manages to be very funny and incredibly grim all at once. Directed by Russell Bolam, it’s an honest portrayal of a world that’s often violent and unforgiving, but drawn with the sympathetic pen of a writer who knows his subject matter well, and tackles head-on the stereotype that says just because people find themselves in a bad situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people.

The action begins in the stairwell of a run-down block of flats in Bermondsey. This is the home of petty criminals Dal (Daniel Kendrick) and Becks (Danielle Flett), and their nice but dim local drug dealer Thick-Al (George Whitehead). Life’s not exactly easy for the trio, but it’s also fairly uneventful… until Dal’s childhood friend Tel (Morgan Watkins) comes back into town to retrieve ÂŁ500 he lent Thick-Al in an unlikely moment of generosity. Realising he’s been taken for a mug, the unpredictable Tel, who’s never been quite the same since falling on his head during a robbery a few years ago, sets out to take his bloody revenge – and woe betide anyone who gets in his way.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

What’s so appealing about The Monkey is that despite everything that goes on (and between the language and the violence, it does get pretty graphic at times), all the characters – even the psychotic Tel – have redeeming features and are even quite likeable. There’s genuine friendship on display here, for instance, even if it is expressed through liberal use of the c-word, and in many ways the characters’ idiosyncrasies make them easier to get along with: Tel and Thick-Al’s shared love of Jaffa Cakes is oddly endearing, as is Tel’s unexpected obsession with cleanliness.

This flawed humanity is captured in four brilliant performances from the cast. Morgan Watkins is particularly enjoyable as Tel, a ticking time bomb of twitchy, pent-up energy that occasionally explodes in bursts of violent rage towards anyone who happens to be nearby. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, Tel stands out from the Bermondsey crowd, and his air of superiority shows that he’s well aware of the fact, while his admiration for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs exposes him as a frustrated gangster wannabe.

Photo credit: Simon Annand

At the opposite end of the scale, George Whitehead’s affable and appropriately named Thick-Al has no such pretensions, and is so laid-back he’s practically horizontal; content to lounge about on the sofa all day, all he cares about is his next fix, and he’s blissfully unaware of the trouble he’s in until it’s too late. Daniel Kendrick and Danielle Flett fall somewhere in between the two as Dal and Becks – while they’re quite content to get on with life in the only way they know, they are at least alert to the danger posed by Tel’s return and its potential ramifications, not just for Al but for themselves as well.

Not for the fainthearted, The Monkey is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes (and educational: not only did I learn some new rhyming slang, I now know that Tim Roth’s from Dulwich, not Deptford – yes, I did go away and look it up) with larger than life, complex characters who feel like real people, not clichĂ©s. It’s an impressive debut from John Stanley and well worth checking out during its short run at Theatre503.

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… 😉

Interview: Debra Baker, Big Guns