Park Theatre, London – until 14 September 2019
Although there has been a lot of fun, lightness and laughter on display onstage during 2019 I have, just occasionally, found myself watching aspects of the seamier side of life. Prostitution, the porn industry, poisonous relationships, violence and child abuse have all featured and served to enhance a general feeling of negativity which seems to pervade society currently. Sometimes a bit of froth and fun are called for but that was never going to be the case with my latest outing.
“Marvellous”. “Deeply moving”. “A meaningful play about a really important subject”. As I left the Park Theatre having watched Eugene O’Hare’s play The Weatherman, these were the sort of (overheard) comments that were most prevalent among my fellow theatre goers. Unfortunately, I could not altogether agree which just goes to show just how subjective this whole business of reviewing is.
The worthy looking leaflet left for us on the seats as we entered, alerted us to the content of the play being about Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery; serious topics by anyone’s standards. So, it was somewhat unexpected when the first 20 minutes or so seemed to be a comedy about a pair of flat sharing low-lifes who bickered and complained as though they were an old married couple and who were only staying together out of habit.
However, this soon morphs into something more sinister as it becomes apparent that the couple, O’Rourke (perpetually angry) and Beezer (perpetually drunk), are being employed to “look after” a 12-year-old Romanian girl bought to Britain by their boss, Dollar, in order, as he hypocritically excuses himself, to have a better life than the one she would have back home.
Throw into the mix a relatively (at first) chirpy minder called Turkey and there you have the complete cast other than the totally silent and largely unresponsive girl, Mara, who when she appears is every inch the tragic victim of this all male milieu.
Although we do not (thankfully) see her at work we hear enough about what goes on to form a clear picture of abuse, degradation and human violation. Rather we see her cooped up in the barricaded flat listening to the tales of the various men who indirectly – and possibly directly – abuse her. A sympathetic understanding grows up between Mara and O’Rourke, but this has extremely tragic consequences and the play ends on an extended diminuendo.
Now, let me say, that the cast members are uniformly excellent and completely credible in their roles. David Schaal as the odious Dollar is frighteningly realistic in his manipulation and control of the others while Mark Hadfield as Beezer is disarmingly pathetic and had most of the comic lines.
Mara is brought to life by the movement and haunted looks of Niamh James though I could have wished that the playwright had found a way to give her a voice. While it forcibly makes the point that she is a silent victim I do think the complete absence of a vocalised female perspective serves to work against the message rather than enhance it.
Instead we heard from the men – repeatedly, in some cases unrelentingly and to the point of tedium. There were an awful lot of monologues in this play; indeed, most of the second half seemed to consist entirely of them. However, they were not monologues delivered directly to the audience which might have retained interest. They were mediated through the silent young girl and, to my mind, lost much of their force by doing so. Try as I might I just could not get into the play’s headspace. I even asked to move seats during the interval to try and help me refocus, but I still found myself unable to fully engage. Perhaps that’s a reflection on me rather than the piece but I began to find the whole thing rather soporific. Some of the direction however did not help. For instance, much of O’Rourkes long monologue, as delivered by Alec Newman, was rendered less effective to those of us sitting stage left as it was played downstage right with a kitchen table and chairs obscuring the view. As this was supposed to be the point where the shared empathy between him and his captive emerged this was definitely unfortunate.
The set design by James Perkins was suitably grotty and the imaginative soundscape of Giles Thomas was instrumental in creating a sense of time and place. Costuming was pretty much on the money and the lighting design of Tina McHugh conjured up the right sense of menace and unease.
This piece will inevitably draw comparisons with the work of Harold Pinter, Martin McDonagh and even, at one particularly grisly moment, Quentin Tarantino. That it is not quite of the same standard does not mean this writer has no promise. Indeed, the management at Park Theatre obviously think that here is a talent to be nurtured. The second of O’Hares two debut plays “Sydney and the Old Girl” premieres there later in the season starring Miriam Margolyes. Perhaps I’ll appreciate that one more.*
Now just in case anyone thinks I’m decrying putting serious subjects on stage let me make it clear that I’m not. Two of my monthly “Picks of the Bunch” have been Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and they couldn’t be bleaker if they tried. My most recent five star accolade went to The Lehman Trilogy a play with some real depth and heft to it. And what all these had in common was that were, to coin a phrase, “seriously entertaining”. Besides with the political mess we are in isn’t it only natural to want to engage with something with lightens the gloom a bit. As Lloyd Dallas, the erstwhile director in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off so succinctly puts it: I haven’t come to the theatre to hear about other people’s problems. I’ve come to be taken out of myself….and, preferably, not put back again.
*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine
Production photos by Piers Foley