Writer: Sarah O’Connell
Director: Naomi Jones
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Natalia can get the best out of people. That’s why she’s getting sent out as the sole journalist for a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary set in the dark world of drug dealing. Not that her boss, upper middle-class media man James, would touch this assignment with a barge pole. The idea of a trip to a sink estate in Leeds is way outside his comfort zone.
Jay has been dealing drugs since his early teens and it’s now his sole option for supporting four kids and a crack habit. Hooked up with Natalia through a friend, he’s agreed to talk on camera about his ill-chosen career and introduce her to a few of his customers and associates. As Natalia becomes immersed in Jay’s world, her ‘contributors’ prove themselves to be less different from herself than she might have imagined. Her hours of film reveal a group of young people who are surprisingly thoughtful and fragile. Of course, that’s not what the TV company wants and, like many a go-getting, BAFTA-hungry Editor, James has other plans for Natalia’s footage.
Writer Sarah O’Connell has herself worked as a current affairs journalist and there’s clearly a healthy dose of autobiography about Concrete Jungle. In fact, it’s something of a whistle-blow about the misrepresentation that the media can be guilty of. But she doesn’t stop there. It’s also a stinging criticism of the London-centric view of the media, and the jobs-for-the-(public school)boys culture that creates the lens through which we’re shown the world. The fact that Natalia ups and takes her values well away from this dirty business and to “some humanitarian organisation” at the end of the play is something of a triumph for good.
O’Connell has created a solid full-length drama that deals with some meaty subjects – regionalism, race, sexism and educational inequality all feature and are robustly debated. Her play doesn’t shy away from the shocking or the profane – and a sense of danger hovers just below the surface much of the time, but her narrative could be more agile. There’s still some padding that could go in a further edit to sharpen up the piece and give the dialogue more immediacy. As such it feels like a work in progress, albeit one in pretty good shape.
The same can’t be said for the direction by Naomi Jones which is chaotic and unimaginative. Much fussing with bits of set and props add nothing to the piece and slow the momentum between scenes. There’s no need for the mess on James’s desk that requires moving every time we shift from newsroom to junkie’s living room, where another pile of needless set dressing gets in everyone’s way. A nifty table and bench seat that becomes a park bench/sofa is perhaps the exception but even that requires a lot of superfluous hefting about. Coincidentally, it’s our over-familiarity with TV drama that has created this over use of clutter on stage, one which often afflicts fringe productions where there’s no fancy technology or huge stage crew to make things move about seamlessly. Jones could have made everyone’s life easier by losing most of it and letting the play speak for itself. The cast actually get less to do during scenes that when they’re scene changing. There’s some pacing about and sitting at desks and not a lot in between, which is occasionally distracting, but mostly just visually dull.
Performances vary wildly. Portia Booroff plays the shrewish Verity with far too much of a pantomime villain vibe, and Katy Federman isn’t always completely convincing as the Oxford educated Natalia whose down to earth Northern attitude supposedly opens the most unlikely doors. But Lladel Bryant puts in a convincing and highly watchable performance as Jay that deftly reveals the complexity of the character, and Shaun Hennessy is suitably inscrutable as James. The idea of two rather lovable addicts could be terribly clichéd, and yet Michael Warrender and Rhys McDowell (as Peter and Andy – exchanging roles every other night of the run) make it work wonderfully with their sensitive, and brilliantly physical, performances.
There’s a pretty good play here, and although it fails to really shine in this production, it’s certainly one that deserves attention. Sarah O’Connor has a lot to say about some important stuff – and in the right hands Concrete Jungle could be something quite special.
Runs until 29th July 2016