TheatreN16, London – until 11 November 2017
This story of gender expectation in the masculine and distant setting of an army regiment is rich in character and ideas. Martin McNamara’s follow up to Your Ever Loving is a very different tale. The focus is on Agnes (Safron Beck) who gives Joan “the Freak” Ferguson from Prisoner Cell Block H vibes. She is cold, distant and even her lover Andrew (Dickon Farmar), a married man, knows very little about her. They meet for sex and nothing else and Agnes is happy with this.
Who can blame Agnes for finding some joy in meaningless sex? Her job is to be a ‘Knocker’ telling parents/spouses their child or partner has died. She takes a set approach 42 minutes, no pleasantries and not much sympathy. Her colleague the much younger Iain (Jordan Fyffe) is baffled by her coldness because he has a history with the young man who died and knows it could have been him lying dead. Her explanation of how important the use of army jargon is when talking to families as well as her admiration for beige hotel rooms because they are clean and efficient suggests there is something deeper at the root of her distance. She shows sympathy only once; when a wife whose husband beat her celebrates his death with warm prosecco, not long after mentioning an ex-husband of her own.
It is a strong piece, exceptional when Beck and Maginnis are on stage but the scene where Agnes is confronted by Major Liam Lawless (Matt Betts) about her lack of feminity and questionable encouragement of Iain to visit local prostitutes just doesn’t work. Firstly Betts doesn’t command the authority of a Major and secondly, this shouldn’t be the character where Agnes gives up her vulnerability. McNamara is great at dialogue, which makes the scene with Ian and Ivy (Sarah-Jane Charlton), the prostitute, so disappointing. She is given lines of broken English and Fyffe is a skilled and confident actor to simply deliver this beautiful monologue about his relationship with the army, his family and the deceased soldier. It doesn’t need this context. It is beautifully directed by Lyon who embraces the small space of Theatre N16 rather than fight against it. The small hotel room and tiny offices showing their own claustrophobia; working and living a life that doesn’t really understand them
Saffron Beck gives one of the performances of the year, her distance is fully explained and fully understandable. McNamara could teach a lot of playwrights how to write distant characters with warmth. I look forward to seeing Jordan Fyffe is more productions and his monologue as Iain is one of the strongest performances I have ever seen. It is a shame Dickon Farmar as Andrew is not given more to do because his opening and closing scenes with Agnes give us a glimpse into her character but not really his, with only a dying wife as his excuse for the affair.
This is a great piece that deserves a wider audience. I don’t often call for transfers but this is a show that should have one. It looks at a side of the army we rarely see and it is sympathetic, without being mawkish, to servicemen and women.