Old Red Lion Theatre, London – until 21 March 2020
After an exhausting week of work, a triple-bill of plays can feel a bit daunting, but I laughed in the face of daunt and headed to the Old Red Lion in Angel for a triptych of plays all connected by the themes of love, loss, trauma and existence.
The night opened with the longest of the three plays, Buried, a new piece (previously workshopped at the Tristan Bates) with a wonderful heritage that I wasn’t aware of until the interval (amazing what you can learn from actually reading the programme). Written by David Spencer, and performed by his son, James Demaine, Buried tells the story of Max Spencer, the playwright’s father, who we join just as he has been buried alive during WWII.
Buried explodes into life with a barrage of fragmented memories, as a traumatised Max’s mind bounces through the landscape of his life, even as his own body is painfully trapped in a narrow space. It is confronting at first, challenging the audience to keep up and unpick just where we are in Max’s life, but its beauty of lies in how those threads quickly start to weave together, and Max’s story starts to click into focus.
We learn of his upbringing, his first sexual encounter, his experience of the war, his friends, being a Barnardo’s boy, the dubious parenting skills of priests, and being more-or-less sold to a farmer as cheap labour. Joining the navy to escape his life, and learn how to box, Max finds himself thrust into the horrors of war. You get a genuine sense of fear as Max realises he might die before he has had a chance to experience the beautiful things in life.
The piece has a powerful anti-war message, as Max rages against the futility of it all – if you don’t die today, they’ll just get you tomorrow. Demaine gives a passionate and committed performance as Max. He lands the young man’s fear and desperation, while fearlessly embracing a scattered and fragmented script, allowing the raw poetry of the piece to cut through. He goes from prowling the stage, as he bounces through the memories of his unhappy life, to being trapped, static and contorted in the narrow confines of his present reality, the very reality his mind is trying to distract him from.
Buried is a beautifully written, richly structured and intriguing new play, which showcases Spencer’s talent as a playwright. Directors Alexander Knott and Ryan Hutton imbue the play with a robust energy, which effectively brings to life Max’s trauma, while avoiding falling into the trap of being too static or claustrophobic. There is a good level of direct eye contact from Demaine, which draws the audience into this true, personal moment of history.
After the interval we were back for Graceland, a short, darkly comic piece about a struggling teacher. Enter Mr Chrichton (Anthony Cozens), our physics teacher, who treats the audience like his students, and we quickly adapt and respond accordingly. It is immediately obvious that Mr Chrichton is on edge. Cozens embraces the sarcasm heavy script with enthusiasm, imbuing Mr Chrichton with a convincing combination of exhaustion and acerbic wit. I suspect we’ve all known teachers who could undermine a disruptive student with a single well structured one-liner.
This is all very fun, but as Mr Chrichton starts to teach the students about Combustion, things take a dark and menacing turn. I’ll say no more. Anthony Cozens gives a wonderful performance, as the teacher who unravels in front of his students, responding to unscripted audience interactions with wonderful in-character quips. Writer Max Saunders-Singer has created a recognisable character in Mr Chrichton, but by putting him through the emotional wringer, shows us what might happen if he is pushed too far.
Directed by Max Saunders-Singer and Sonnie Beckett, this short character piece packs quite the punch, both in terms of the comedy and the tension created, as things take a disturbing turn.
The final, and probably most famous, part of our Triptych is ‘Nuclear War’ written by Simon Stephens. Following its premiere at the Royal Court in 2017, this is its first revival and it feels very different to the original production, which shows the range and adaptability of this play. A woman (played here by Freya Sharp and Zoe Grain) struggles to live her life and connect with the world around her following the devastating loss of the one she loves. Sharp and Grain interact beautifully, embracing Georgia Richardson’s movement direction, sometimes synchronising, at other times echoing or dancing with an engaging fluidity.
Director, Alexander Knott’s production focuses on our anonymous woman, and her experience of loss and disconnection. It keeps the focus internalised as Sharp and Grain beautifully animate her inner struggles. The world she battles against isn’t brought into focus in this production, although it is referenced and acknowledged, there is no additional cast representing society.
This is an intriguing first revival of a challenging and experimental piece of theatre. For those who have seen the Royal Court production, there is a fascination in seeing just how transformed the play feels given very different casting and staging choices. For first-timers, this is a beautiful, slightly hypnotic piece, about love, loss and the unavoidable devastation of time.
This compelling triptych of plays runs at the Old Red Lion until 21st March 2020.