Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London – until 17 September 2022
A Flashbang is a type of grenade that goes off very loudly and suddenly, upsetting everything. It takes everything you think you know and shakes it all up in a blinding flash of light and noise and pain.
There is a tragedy at the centre of James Lewis’ Flashbang, but it is not what it at its heart. There you find the recurring theme of Lewis’ writing – the poetry of the ordinary. Flashbang sits firmly and comfortably in this tradition.
Its style is more ambitious than anything I have seen from Proforca before – the lyricism in the delivery which sits in a beautiful no man’s land between verse and prose. Never really dialogue, never really monologue. Each character interacting and undercutting each other to produce a poetic piece that never feels like having poetry forced down you as more formal plays might. In this, it feels like Lewis’ most mature piece yet.
In many ways that is the theme of the piece – maturity. Specifically, the moment in time, years long usually, when the males of our species live in a strange liminal space between child and adult. The period when lads aren’t yet, but know they soon will, become dads.
So meet ‘everylad’ Ryan (Sam Kacher) and his gang – ladies’ man Jason (Emmanuel Olusanya), music-mad Andy (Henry Brackenridge) and the off-the-wall Deano (Fred Wardale). Each weave their stories and lives together and have since they formed their gang in primary school.
These are lads who may refer to their town as a shithole 20 miles from nowhere, but that doesn’t mean they don’t both love it and are entirely intend to happily stay there for life. This is not a story of a longing to escape. Nor is it a story of struggling to belong. These boys have that sense of place and (often dysfunctional, but still loving) family. They know they will grow up to live the same ordinary lives their parents do and the same one they will bequeath their kids and they also know that’s fine. Theirs is not a desperate existence, but the quiet standard contentment of millions.
This is not to say that their lives are perfect. The tragedy that strikes at the heart of their lives together exposes the universal growing pains they are already experiences to deeper and more consequential wounds. Their fragility – and, in particular, their sense of their own inadequate ways of dealing with it as they learn to become men, in all that this should and does mean (whatever we feel it perhaps shouldn’t) – is raw and beautifully portrayed.
The young cast is absolutely magnificent. I was particularly struck by the sheer magnetism of Olusanya (putting down a marker now – this lad is going to be a star) but that is not to take away from his castmates who all made me cry and laugh and relate to an experience I have never had and a life I have no desire to lead.
If I have one criticism of Flashbang, it would be that in its desire to treat all the stories as of equal value, it meant that the ending had a slight ‘Lord of the Rings’ quality to it with a very slight sense that there were endings piled on endings. But this is incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. And at 85 minutes – long for the fringe – this whizzes by and I was never bored or distracted at any point.
Once again, David Brady’s Proforca has taken the beauty of normality and shone an unlikely spotlight on it. It is poetry, pain, pleasure and a pure joy to behold.