Utopia, Soho Theatre

Visions of Utopia have a knack of falling flat on their face, so it seems only appropriate that this new collaborative theatre project should recruit clowns to conjure its perfect worlds. In this partnership between the Soho Theatre and Live Theatre in Newcastle, six fools fumble through flawed blueprints, searching in vain through all of humanity’s failed efforts for a reliable model of perfection. These blueprints come courtesy both of a long line of thinkers, whose words are revealed to us via projected quotations, and of an assembled group of writers who have all produced their own responses to the central theme.

Which all sounds great on paper, but is underwhelming in its execution. In the hands of joint directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts and their diverse team of writers, big concepts are rendered bafflingly small and an idea that is fascinating by itself becomes marred by its own realisation. Looked at a certain way, this is all ironically apt given that the piece is dealing with the desire for and impossibility of a utopian world, but this is not quite enough of a justification to excuse what more often than not simply feels like clumsiness and poor scene selection. A frustrated question kept nudging at me as I watched: are these really the most interesting utopian visions we could dream up?

There are admittedly some nice pieces (the word nice chosen here precisely for its very bland variety of praise). ‘The Presentation’, created by Thomas Eccleshare, Josh Roche and director Marmion, is a witty interpretation of perfection in our material culture, showing us Utopia as Steve Jobs might have imagined it, shiny and pocket-sized, but there is little depth beneath the slick cleverness. There is also a startling moment in Chi Onwurrah’s gameshow-inspired ‘Humanity’ when one character unexpectedly reveals the selflessness that human beings are capable of, while Janice Okoh’s vision of a world where medical science has been perfected and death is purely by choice is one of the more compelling scenarios.

One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing scenes is not produced by any of the collection of writers, but instead by another dangerous utopian dreamer. Partway through the second half, we are confronted with a rousing election speech stuffed with rhetoric promising a better future – we half expect Obama’s mantra of “yes we can”. But with a startling sideswipe of anti-Semitism, this vision is smashed and it becomes horribly clear just whose words these really are. It is a stark, extreme reminder that one man’s idea of paradise is another’s vision of hell, and also that utopia and dystopia can be just a hair’s width apart.

As this overlong creation nears its end, however, there is the danger that intellectual investigation is abandoned in favour of emotional release. While the regrets of a now elderly ex-politician and the poignant attempts of a widow to “make the best” of her situation with the aid of a bit of over-50s zumba add moments of tenderness, they seem also to dilute the evening’s purpose. Fortunately Simon Stephens’ beautifully simple speech, spoken between the six actors, is suffused with enough grounded normality – the simple dream of drinking without getting a hangover, or of finding the perfect cup of coffee – to stall the decline into trite sentimentality.

Thinking back over the production, my complaints are admittedly not so much to do with this piece of theatre as it stands alone. It is frequently amusing and occasionally intriguing; it draws committed and energetic performances from its cast, particularly a sparkling Laura Elphinstone; it flirts playfully with form; there is a bubble machine, which tends to immediately raise most performances a few notches in my book. It is rather Utopia’s failure to meet the potential of its fascinating premise that makes it such a staggering disappointment. The level to which this wastes a brilliant concept makes me almost angry.

I can’t help but feel that many of the production’s problems arise not from its concept, which is an undeniably intriguing one, but from the way in which it has been assembled. As contributor Eccleshare politely and diplomatically hinted at when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, creating a co-authored show by having those authors each write in isolation is a tricky process. Had I not known about the technique of piecing this together, I think I would still have suspected a lack of dialogue between the writers. Utopia never really feels like a conversation.

I wonder if a truly collaborative approach (by which I mean bringing the contributors together at the writing table and even in the rehearsal room, shaping the piece while writing it) might have produced something far more interesting, as it is often when different utopias collide that the most fascinating discussions occur – a fact that Marmion and Roberts surely recognise, considering their central aim to provoke debate. It seems, then, an odd choice to have pieced together the show in the way that they have done, creating separate entities, smashing these apart and gluing their jagged edges together.

When mixed with the text of historical and literary utopias, the two directors have a deluge of content to channel into a finished piece, which seems partly to be the point but also makes for an inevitably messy production. Marmion and Roberts’ project is still to be admired for its aim and ambition alone; it is a beguiling idea, and one that is given a fittingly democratic treatment by mingling so many voices, if not entirely successfully. Perhaps, just like its subject, any attempt to tackle the concept of Utopia without isolating a single vision of perfection is doomed to fail.

In the end, it all just feels like a bit of a shame. Look at how good we could have made it, Utopia tries to say. Yes, quite.

Three Kingdoms: New Ways of Seeing, Experiencing, Expressing

If it is possible for one piece of theatre to be an argument against the traditional model of theatre criticism, then Three Kingdoms makes that point rather comprehensively over its messy, anarchic, thrilling three hours. Despite wrenching the obligatory, paltry 400 words out of my still slightly dazed brain, a part of me wants to go back smash them apart again. Simon Stephens’ latest play actively resists being weighed up and judged with a neat star rating within a tidy word limit; it sticks two fingers up, as it were, to the well made review.

To be completely honest, I left the Lyric Hammersmith on Tuesday evening in a state of confusion, disorientation and uncertainty. It was as though I had been submerged for three hours in a strange and baffling yet oddly captivating dream, one that frustrated at some turns and delighted at others. If someone had asked me, in the immediate moments after I vacated my seat in the auditorium, whether I liked Three Kingdoms, I would have struggled to answer them. “Like” strikes me as a word from a completely different vocabulary to the one in which this piece of theatre operates. In fact this whole production, directed by Sebastian Nübling in an extraordinary British, German and Estonian collaboration as part of World Stages London, seems to speak a different language to the one we are accustomed to in British theatre.

The strange irony of describing Three Kingdoms as dreamlike – which is the closest I can get to evoking its loopily surreal quality – is that I did in fact dream about the production in anticipation of seeing it. Yes, I was that excited. But my subconscious was incapable of creating anything as bizarre, visually imaginative and downright bonkers as what appeared on the stage of the Lyric Hammersmith. As in the image above, women don deer heads and are pursued by wolf-masked men; a gang of boxers violently pummel the soiled set; a strangely haunting, white-clad figure sings chilling pop song accompaniments; there is more lurid sexual content than you can shake a strap-on at.

I should perhaps point out that within the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of images there is a plot of sorts, and a detective plot no less, but this is far from your average whodunnit thriller. We begin in the middle of a police interrogation, as detective duo Ignatius and Charlie question a young man who has inadvertently thrown a severed human head into the River Thames. The forensic evidence points back to Europe, where the decapitated sex-worker has been trafficked from. With odd suddenness, the two detectives follow the trail back to the pimps and pornographers of Berlin and later – with Charlie inexplicably disappearing from the scene – to an Estonian sex-trafficking gang.

Without knowing much about European theatre – a lack of knowledge that I’m keen to remedy off the back of this – I would ignorantly speculate that the style and tone of the production shifts appropriately with the geographical location. Never is the writing more central than in the early London-based interrogations, reflecting the new writing culture of British theatre, with more than an echo of Pinter in the detectives’ swift back and forth of dialogue. As the action moves to Germany and later to Estonia, we are offered increasingly audacious visual imagery and an escalating physicality, as performers tumble through windows and spring startlingly from suitcases. It certainly feels many miles from British theatre, and bracingly so.

In this way, Nübling manages to create a disorientating visualisation of the dislocation of foreign travel, immersing us in cultures that are strikingly different to our own through the conduit of Ignatius, a man severely lost in translation and persuasively, energetically portrayed by Nicolas Tennant. In this sense, the perplexing surreality of the production is a resonant metaphor for the clash of cultures in an increasingly globalised world, where Europe is both sister and other.

Through the piece, Stephens and Nübling make us aware of our own strangely separate and insular status as an island nation, a culture that is supposedly part of Europe and yet distinctly divided from it. Our perceptions of this continent, and particularly of the still largely alien society of Eastern Europe, are both channelled and challenged. While the practice of sex-trafficking may be this play’s overt subject, the relationship between East and West demands an equally prominent place on the stage.

Related to this, language is another key concern, perhaps surprisingly in a production so anchored by the sensory. The very experience of having to read surtitles for much of the evening already puts a different slant on how this play is received, with the audience having to do the mental leg-work of reading and connecting both spoken and physical language. Translation also throws up its own issues, particularly as Ignatius is forced to rely solely on what German-speaking Charlie chooses to tell him, a potent illustration of the power of words and the fluidity of their meaning. Even when we are dealing only with English, words are important. Ignatius and Charlie verbally play with synonyms before finding the right fit, while a sentence such as “they sawed it not sliced it” (in relation to the woman’s decapitation) is an excruciating demonstration of how a slightly different word can have a vastly different effect.

While Nübling has clearly transformed Stephens’ script into a theatrical creation that is as much his own as it is the playwright’s (the word collaboration here feels fully justified), the words still dazzle on their own. There is a sharp precision to Stephens’ writing, conjuring an incisively perceptive vision of the world that emerges most powerfully through the short monologues that various characters speak. One character’s description of the market economics of sex trafficking is brutally wounding in its calculated logic; the analogy of a toilet to convey the message that “shit doesn’t go away” is a painfully apt one.

Dealing with Stephens’ script also brings me onto the relationship between writer and director, which is here figured strikingly differently to how we are used to it in this country. The respective places of the writer and the director in British theatre demand a whole other blog post, but it is worth briefly pointing out the extraordinary free rein that Stephens has given to Nübling, placing huge levels of trust in the director’s hands. Anyone interested in this area should read Alex Chisholm’s excellent essay for Exeunt, in which she questions the imposed division between “new writing” and “new work”. It is certainly worth considering whether the model posed by Stephens and Nübling could provide a way to bridge this gap in British theatre.

Moving on, in the multi-lingual environment that Stephens has created, pop music emerges as a common language. This clearly reflects Stephens’ own interests, but it also seems an appropriate demonstration of the wide-reaching penetration of some elements of culture and not others. There is a sinister irony to the way in which music is used, with romantic lyrics often clashing with the global commodification of sex and sexual violence that is being portrayed. One particularly haunting rendition of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers still has yet to release its grip on me.

As heart-pumpingly exhilarating as this production may be, however, I cannot quite offer Three Kingdoms my wholly unfettered praise. My main problem with the piece is the way in which it treats its female victims (a word I use with caution). Is silence the way to give these women a voice? Before criticising, I can wholly appreciate and understand the perspective of this production, which is itself a primarily male product. (To briefly digress, the word “product” here feels significant. As in the sentence I have just written, products are actively created by men – the product is the object, the men the collective subject – while women in this play are referred to by the Estonian sex traffickers as the passive “product” that they trade.)

On one level, it makes perfect sense. Three Kingdoms is shocking in its treatment of women, thereby shocking us as a result. The women in the piece are largely silent because the women they represent are living in enforced silence; it seems appropriate, authentic (another word that is tainted through its particular, unsavoury use by Stephens – see my earlier point about the importance of language?).

But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Here I’d like to refer you to an exchange on Twitter between Chris Goode (@beescope) and Stella Duffy (@stellduffy) that caught my attention before I had even seen the show myself and that sums up pretty comprehensively what I’m trying to get at:

@beescope: Three Kingdoms is hugely impressive, a near-perfect match (collision?) of writer, director and intrepid actors. Still frustrating though that nobody wanting to work in those modes wholly within the British system would ever get past the gatekeepers. Also wish it didn’t revel quite so much in the misogyny it’s describing.
@stellduffy: @beescope the difficulty of representing that which we’re trying to counteract/deal with.
@beescope: @stellduffy Yeah, for sure. But it’s extra troubling when the work so completely reproduces the malaise that there’s no critical leverage. If you make the victims essentially voiceless you can come awfully close to appearing not to have noticed there’s a problem.
@stellduffy: @beescope women are abused in life. re-creating a problem is not the same as creating an alternative. sigh.

(Apologies for the awful formatting of the above, I couldn’t get a decent screenshot)

There is something to be said for exposing an issue in all its brutal ugliness, but it is disturbing and worrying that it is so rarely exposed from the perspective of those upon whom it most impacts. Women are rendered speechless throughout, either by language barriers or by fear. In one of Nübling’s many powerful images, a half-clothed female figure silently irons in the background while men watch porn on a phone screen; another woman is unable to even communicate with the men who viciously insult her.

The production also seems to revel somewhat in the sexual violence it portrays, which is upsetting and troubling on the one hand but intriguing on the other. Such is the level of dazzling visual spectacle that we are invited to become complicit spectators; Stephens and Nübling recruit the audience as a living example of the dark forces within human nature that drive the acts they are depicting. Thought of in such a way, Michael Coveney’s protestation that anyone to enjoy this experience must be “debauched beyond redemption” takes on a slightly defensive air.

Also complicit are the two detectives, whose common gender – while it may exclude greater involvement from female characters – becomes darkly significant. At the same time as doggedly pursuing their case, they are implicit participants in the industries responsible for this murder. In a chilling scene in which they watch a recording of the young woman’s beheading, they become tainted spectators, and their attitude towards the women they encounter on their investigation hints at deeper problems. The concluding twist, which I am still wrapping my head around, seems to enhance Ignatius’ guilty complicity in what he is attempting to destroy; there are no heroes here.

Another potential criticism is the plot’s gradual descent into incomprehensibility, as we are assaulted with unfathomable image upon unfathomable image in a hedonistic Estonian finale that becomes increasingly hard to follow and digest. This frustrates the very British aim of getting to the bottom of what a play is “saying”, but perhaps it is the critical approach that is at fault rather than the production. We can be determinedly blinkered as a theatrical culture and have nurtured a sort of suspicion towards theatre that asks its audiences to feel and experience as much as it asks them to think.

The very lack of meaning here seems to create a new kind of meaning. Stephens has said that Nübling never asked him what he was trying to say in his script, and perhaps we should not ask either (I am aware of the hypocritical irony of making this statement several hundred words into a piece of writing that it is, on some level, doing just that). This is theatre that demands a new way of watching and I found myself feeling hampered by the nagging knowledge that I would have to write a formal review, pestered by the panic-inducing question of how I was going to critique it. I almost wish that I could have experienced this production without the critical handcuffs binding me.

Value judgements are usually, at least by the standards of the conventional review and the purpose it serves, what make a piece of critical writing. Readers want to know whether the reviewer thinks it is “good” or “bad” theatre (note the inverted commas); they want to know whether or not they should buy a ticket, which is a valid expectation to have from a review. In this case, although I obviously did give one in the form of a star rating, I felt to an extent incapable of offering my value judgement, my thumbs up or down. But as for whether others should go to see the show, I can only offer a resounding YES. This is theatre that needs to be consumed on an individual basis, and I suspect that it may be divisive, but it should be experienced. It is made to be experienced.

As if to prove my opening point about Three Kingdoms‘ inherent challenge to mainstream theatre criticism, the majority of the mainstream press have struggled with it and, in some cases, condemned it. This style of theatre is clearly not to everyone’s taste, but it saddens and frustrates me that many of the reviews do not even attempt to engage with it on the most basic level. Instead, there has been a startling dichotomy between the verdicts of what we might call the traditional critics and the response that the production is receiving through Twitter and online critical outlets. Perhaps this heralds the realisation that we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing. And perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

For some other interesting approaches to Three Kingdoms, try taking a look at reviews by Andrew Haydon and Daniel B. Yates. And for anyone wanting a more visual impression of the production (as only seems appropriate), see the Lyric’s trailer below:

Reviewing Reviewed: An Attempt to be Honest

I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty. Not in the overall, broad sense of that word and what it encompasses, but in terms of how it relates to my writing and more specifically my writing about theatre. This blog post, therefore, is an attempt to tell the truth, to strip off the usual protective armour that coats the writing I release out into the world and allow myself to be a little more open, a little more vulnerable. What follows may simply be seen as indulgent self-analysis, but I hope that it also connects with bigger debates that are currently taking place about theatre writing and the direction it is being taken in, or should be taken in.

As I say, I’ve been thinking about this question of honesty in theatre criticism a lot and for quite some time, but this attempt to articulate my thoughts was prompted by Jake Orr’s reconsideration of a review he wrote for A Younger Theatre. In an admirably honest and heartfelt follow-up, Jake admitted that the judgement he passed on the production in question (Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer, which I haven’t actually seen myself) was perhaps unfair, an admission that fed into regrets about how quickly critics must file their review and move on and asked wider questions about the shortcomings of what we might call mainstream or traditional theatre criticism.

This resonated with difficulties that I had personally been experiencing over the last few days. In a possibly foolish move, I went to review the first two of Edward Bond’s Chair Plays at the Lyric Hammersmith on Monday, followed by Making Noise Quietly the next night, effectively giving myself the task of processing five plays in the space of 48 hours – and all at the same time as working my day job. I enjoyed the plays to varying degrees, but they were all teeming with ideas that resisted being pinned down. Tied to deadlines and starved of sleep, I thought and struggled a lot, cobbled together some responses and reluctantly moved on.

But my uncertainty continues to chip away at me. How could these works be reduced to a few hundred sleepily composed words and a hastily slapped on star rating? I do sincerely believe that a review at its best is a thing of beauty and that criticism can be creative in its own right, and for the most part I try my best to strive towards those ideals, but there are also lots of occasions where I fall far short and simply let it go. I sum up a piece of work that has been the product of weeks, months, perhaps even years of hard work and careful consideration in no more than a few hours, using a severely flawed barometer of quality; it seems a ridiculous imbalance.

These thoughts are not entirely new. Theatre criticism, the forms it takes and its inherent limits are all things that I have discussed before, sometimes at length, but looking back self-critically at the reviews I have accumulated over the last couple of years, I can see a disconnect in my thinking. I’ve begun to wonder if I’m failing to practice what I preach and whether the blame for that can be wholly attributed to the restrictions of the traditional 500 word review or if I need to put my own hand up. I think that the answer is probably a bit of both.

I would say that I don’t pretend to be objective, but when I take a closer, harsher look at myself I’m not so sure that’s true. I certainly haven’t made a secret of the fact that I think the concept of critical objectivity is a cracked facade, something that I have explored in my writing here before, yet I wonder whether my reviews themselves contradict this standpoint of honesty. When in a review have I simply admitted ‘this isn’t my cup of tea’? I like to think of myself as fairly open and receptive to all work, but it’s not as though I can eschew personal taste. Similarly, there are certain writers, companies and artists whose work I will inevitably approach in a different way because of my own admiration for them, a fact that is rarely recognised in my finished review.

Beyond the inescapable yet unspoken subjectivity of my writing, I’m aware that I’ve also avoided transparency about my own ignorance. Because, a lot of the time, I do feel fairly ignorant. This is probably to do with being 22 and still feeling like a relative rookie and being aware of how much more there is out there – how much to read, to see, to experience. Constantly meeting others who are far more well-informed than I am, not to mention terrifyingly intelligent, together with being always surrounded by books still to be read, provide continual reminders of my own failings.

When inadequacy or ignorance is admitted by a writer, though, it is seen as a cause of embarrassment for both writer and reader. We are supposed to know everything, or at least think that we know everything, which is often more accurately the case. I don’t expect any of my editors would be particularly happy if I blithely confessed inexperience at the opening of my reviews. No matter how out of my depth I feel, I continue to fumble for a foothold and try to speak from some position of authority, however weak. But there is still that nagging voice at the back of my mind that taunts, ‘who are you to make this judgement?’

Who am I to judge? Who are any of us to judge? Perhaps judgement is not the right word; perhaps we need to rethink the vocabulary of theatre writing. Because I think that what I’m really searching for and what really attracts me to writing about theatre is not cold, calculated judgement, a glib thumbs up or down, but careful analysis, a delicate picking apart of ideas, getting under the skin of a piece of creative work. That’s what also excites me about speaking to theatre makers on the occasions when I am fortunate enough to interview them; I want to pull back the curtain and peek at the inner workings, the beating heart of the piece and its complex, intricate network of veins.

This brings me back to Jake and what inspired this increasingly lengthy blog post in the first place. As a result of some of the thoughts expressed in the piece I have already mentioned, alongside a whole host of other inter-connected thoughts, he and Maddy Costa have launched a project that plans to get closer to what I was beginning to describe above. DIALOGUE, described as a ‘great big playground’ for anyone involved in making, watching or writing about theatre, aims to open up new channels of communication and foster an environment of generosity. As the name suggests, it is intended to start up conversations between those creating theatre and those who usually critique it. It feels urgent, important, exciting.

So, in the adventurous, innovative spirit of Jake and Maddy and all the other theatre writers and makers who are also beginning to question their way of working, I want to do better. I want to engage with a piece of theatre beyond the two hours or so it takes to watch it and the few hours in which I have to hastily formulate a review before work or deadline or both. I want to enter into a dialogue with those who are making the theatre that I consume and to give the act of creating the respect that it is due. I want to avoid falling into lazy assumptions and casual criticisms, even if I am frantically writing away in the early hours running on nothing but caffeine.

Because I’m being honest, I write this in complete anticipation of failure. I will fail. Perhaps my failure will be to a greater or lesser extent, with any luck the latter, but failure is pretty much inevitable. I have other demands on my life, I have a day job and a need to make ends meet, and – dare I say it – sometimes I’m just a bit lazy. I am also bound by the expectations of my writing, which vary from subject to subject and publication to publication. I would say screw it, let’s chuck out the rulebook regardless, but I’m not that brave. Perhaps I’m not that idealistic.

But the one thing I promise is that I will try. I’ll try to connect with the work I see on a deeper level, whether within the restrictive limits of the traditional review format or, as will most likely be the case, through other means. I might write a 500 word review to deadline, but I’ll also try my best to make sure that the work has a life in my thoughts and my writing beyond that. I’ll try to keep questioning what theatre criticism means, or if perhaps we need a completely different terminology to describe the relationship between theatre and what is written about it, even if I don’t have any forthcoming answers. I’ll try to stay alert and open and creative in my thinking.

Most importantly, I will try to be a little more honest.

Pentecost, St Leonard’s Church Shoreditch

Never has art history been more compelling than in David Edgar’s post-Cold War drama, in which a fresco on the wall of a church in Eastern Europe becomes the battleground for clashes between different languages, cultures, religions and ideologies – much like the unnamed post-Communist state of the play has been the scene of invasion upon invasion throughout its troubled history.

After a huge effort of near-compulsive searching, museum curator Gabriela Pecs has unearthed a mural that she believes could completely change the face of art history, proving that the style of painting that set the groundwork for the Renaissance was in fact born not in the West as believed, but in the East. To assist her in her discovery, she enlists English art scholar Oliver Davenport, but their efforts are soon interrupted by the competing objections of the Orthodox and Catholic priests who both lay claim to the church and by the outrage of American art historian Leo Katz, who believes that ancient art should be left alone rather than cosmetically restored to its former glory.

In the fierce debates between Gabriela, Oliver and Leo, Edgar questions both the value and meaning of art. The high art versus low art debate is invoked by the beliefs of Oliver, who argues that we should not distinguish between art and artefact and that we might talk of the Mona Lisa in the same breath as Star Trek. It is an intriguing suggestion, but one that equally renders their restoration efforts almost entirely pointless, a paradox that reveals just how self-serving Oliver’s motivations really are. What Edgar gradually reveals is how this one piece of art of questionable origin is made to mean different things to different individuals, each of whom would impose their own ideology and motives onto this painting.

As well as representing a personal and political battlefield, Edgar questions the easy assumption that art is redemptive and civilising. After all, as one of his characters points out, the guards at Auschwitz listened to Mozart. Any link between art and morality, Edgar illustrates with piercing clarity, is pure wishful fallacy – yet neither is art reduced to a worthless status. The fresco almost becomes a character in its own right, an object whose fate we ultimately care about, achieved mainly through the steely passion of Pinar Ogun’s Gabriela. In order for this piece to truly captivate an audience, Gabriela must infect us with her all-consuming, fevered enthusiasm for her discovery and what it might mean for her nation, a feat that is compellingly accomplished by Ogun, who manages to retain our sympathy even after objecting to her country becoming a dumping ground for the ‘dregs of Europe’, as she disdainfully dubs desperately fleeing asylum seekers.

As integral as art is to the play, however, this is about more than arguments on aesthetics. When, as we move into the second half, the church is invaded by a band of refugees and a thus far intellectual drama escalates into a hostage situation, Edgar is given the opportunity to draw out themes of national identity and the old East versus West divide, a barrier that was not broken down along with the Berlin Wall; the Iron Curtain may have lifted, but a scarcely penetrable veil remains. This is eloquently expressed in confrontations between the simmering melting pot of nationalities brought together in the church and particularly by vitriolic refugee leader Yasmin, who explodes our smug Western stance of superiority.

These expansive ideas and many more are given room to breathe in the large, suitably atmospheric space of St Leonard’s Church, all cold exposed stone and peeling paintwork. The script risks being smothered, however, by a busy, frenetic production from Charm Offensive. The decision to stage this play in this environment is one that makes utter sense, but unfortunately the acoustics are against them, with reverberation draining the sense from many lines – a considerable predicament in a play that is mostly talk. Add to this the sheer amount that is often going on at once, particularly once the refugees arrive on the scene, and Edgar’s beautifully expressed themes are occasionally in danger of floundering.

Director Gavin McAlinden has assembled a rich cast of mixed nationalities, a cultural blend that adds authenticity to a piece in which language, nationality and culture are so vital, though the performances emerging from this mix are uneven. The production remains held together, however, by strong central characterisations from Jonathan Sidgwick as Oliver and from Ogun in the role of Gabriela. As her passion seeps uncontrollably through each stone of the building, it is hard to sweep questions of art and cultural and national identity aside.

Image: Maddy Gasson