Pack, Finborough Theatre

pack

Originally written for Time Out.

The winner of last year’s Papatango New Writing Competition, Dawn King’s ‘Foxfinder’, conjured a haunting vision of a world built on the cultivation of fear. This year’s offering from Louise Monaghan explores fears and prejudices that lie much closer to home, bravely grappling with the thorny racial tensions that persist in modern Britain.

Monaghan’s quartet of female protagonists gather each week to master the rules of bridge, while beyond the walls of the community centre they are locked in a game in which the cards always seem to be dealt against them. Widow Deb struggles to raise her wayward teenage son, while her lifelong friend Stephie juggles a friendship with fellow bridge player Nasreen and her souring marriage to a bitter BNP supporter. As the bridge classes intensify, so too do the external strains.

Confined to the classroom, the piece wisely settles on an intimate setting in which to slowly rachet up the pressure, but Louise Hill’s direction visibly labours to bring the urgency of the outside world into this neutral space. As escalating events occur offstage, including the brutal racist beating of a young Pakistani boy, there is an inevitable atmosphere of reportage; someone is always running through the door slightly out of breath.

The evocative single syllable of Monaghan’s title suggests both a deck of playing cards and the gangs behind racist crime, but it also hints at a pack in the sense of a communal group. Appropriately, when the complexities of the play’s subject are most delicately handled, it is through the friendship that cuts across colour and creed.

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Everyday Maps for Everyday Use, Finborough Theatre

maps

Originally written for Time Out.

As cliché would have it, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. For Tom Morton-Smith, however, the alien is all relative. Tracing the cartography of modern sexual hang-ups, his new play asks where we draw the line between permissible fantasy and dangerous perversion – particularly in a hyper-sexualised culture in which, as one character puts it,’everyone has their kink’.

Through the central focus of Maggie, a teenage girl with an unhealthy fixation on tentacled Martians, Morton-Smith’s peculiar concoction throws together pornography and astronomy, HG Wells and explicit chatrooms. Just as Maggie’s best friend Kiph trusts that any fetish can be explained by Google, the point is made that almost every mutation of desire has a context in which it is normalised. Even Freud would have blushed.

But for all this airing of outlandish turn-ons, the play simultaneously recoils from the very taboos it is attempting to break. Despite an uncomfortable recurring fascination with schoolgirls, the issue of paedophilia is clumsily skated over, while the sexual acts themselves are often described with all the toe-curling awkwardness of the schoolyard.

Despite a compelling central performance from Skye Lourie as Maggie, Beckie Mills’s production struggles to tame this sprawling, confused tale. Like the aliens that have invaded Maggie’s sexual imagination, Morton-Smith is wrestling with too many limbs. As scene bleeds into scene and fantasy into fantasy, the overburdened end result is as numbing as the gratuitously sexualised media that lurks half-acknowledged in the background.

Where the Mangrove Grows, Theatre503

mangrove

Originally written for Time Out.

Under the looming shadow of spending cuts, it’s a pertinent time to focus on the youngsters slipping through society’s deepening cracks. Joe Hammond’s new play, however, is less an examination of the system than a confused vision of one boy’s attempt to dream himself out of it.

A grim chronicle of neglect, ‘Where the Mangrove Grows’ offers us the figure of Shaun (Charlie Jones), a gobby but vulnerable 12-year-old boy discarded by his mother and left to fester in the dark, unobserved corners of the care system. Comforted by a library book illustrated with mangrove trees, his only ally appears to be embittered care-worker Mike (David Birrell).

The worlds of interior and exterior, vivid imagination and bleak reality, are in constant friction with one another in Tamara Harvey’s claustrophobic production. Amy Jane Cook’s design papers the walls of Shaun’s room with the trees that suffuse his dreams, while his window looks out on nothing but blackness. It’s a metaphor that transcends the confines of the play, colliding a common desire for the exotic with the creeping realisation that all is not as it seems.

But just as Shaun is trapped by his circumstances, nurturing a dying spark of imagination against the black void outside, Hammond’s play finds itself equally stuck. Aside from one puncturing moment of horror, the meandering script lacks the muscle to successfully indict the situation it depicts. The cry for help is strangled by its surroundings.

Sealand, Arcola Tent

sealand

Originally written for Time Out.

It’s time for a new start, a radio announcement blares out: time to start again from scratch. Inspired by the real principality of Sealand, a miniature nation established on a former World War II fortress island off the coast of Suffolk, Luke Clarke’s intriguing new play imagines a utopia in the middle of the ocean, an escape from a Britain that is ‘on its last legs’.

Cast appropriately adrift from the city in the sealed-off space of the Arcola Tent, there’s something charmingly homemade about this spirited co-production from The Alchemist and Sell A Door Theatre Company. Upturned containers become chairs and hatches are operated by makeshift pulleys, reflecting the DIY nature of protagonist Ted’s project to build a new community away from the homeland that has let him down. It’s a scheme as idealistic as it is doomed.

While fascinating questions of escape, authority and nationhood quickly make themselves apparent through the narrative, these are just as rapidly submerged in the rising tides of domestic drama. As two troubled families struggle to co-exist in this pressurised tin can in the ocean, Clarke’s initially promising premise eventually dissolves into the same claustrophobic human relations that might be encountered on dry land in pub or sitting room.

By way of an abrupt and bloody concluding revelation, the fate of this fictional Sealand unsurprisingly implies that nations are always founded on violence and sacrifice. But as for why such utopian visions invariably collapse, we’re left all at sea.

Elegy, Theatre503

elegy

Originally written for Time Out.

Doing good is a habit. So is doing evil. This is the lesson of the Iraqi schoolroom, where the unnamed narrator of Douglas Rintoul’s monologue for Transport Theatre witnesses a schoolmate being taught out of the habit of left-handedness. In this world, anything but conformity to the norm must be stamped out.

Based on recent real-life accounts of homophobic violence in Iraq, ‘Elegy’ attempts to return a voice to these others through the power of storytelling, acknowledging as it does the unreliability of narrative. The storyteller, a gay man in a nation where ‘liberation’ has only increased prejudice, delivers his tale in the third person. His narrative does not assume to speak for anyone in particular, and yet he speaks for everyone.

A knowingly incomplete tale of persecution and exile, ‘Elegy’ has been pieced together using various sources drawn from post-liberation Iraq. This patchwork process is reflected in the form, as Sam Phillips’ anguished speaker flits between memories that flicker like the fluorescent strip light hovering above him. The mound of discarded clothing in Hayley Grindle’s set has an archaeological quality, suggesting remnants of other refugees or victims of brutal murders, left behind or taken from them.

As an exposure of the horrors of homophobic killing and the dislocation of forced migration, ‘Elegy’ can only ever capture a limited snapshot. But it is a vivid one. The piece departs, aptly, still trapped in a refugee limbo – between nations, between memories, between fact and fiction.