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.