Writer: James Fritz
Director: Jude Christian
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
With Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on the verge of announcing its shortlist for the 2017 Bruntwood Playwrighting Prize, it has taken two years for the fruits of one of the winners from 2015 to grace the main stage. James Fritz’s Parliament Square was, admittedly from the writer himself, hastily written before the deadline and submitted with moments to spare. His determination proved to be rewarded and his story of one woman’s journey to Parliament Square in London to commit something truly horrendous is the subject matter for this very short run.
We do not know much about Cat (Esther Smith). She is a wife and the mother of a small daughter and we first meet her grappling with her conscious, played by Lois Chimimba, as she leaves her home and travels to the small area just outside The Houses of Parliament. [Spoiler alert: if don’t want to ruin the play do not read on]. She then douses herself in petrol, takes out a lighter and sets fire to herself. As her conscious keeps telling her: “Fifteen seconds – that’s all you have to get through”. Unfortunately for Cat (or perhaps not) a bystander saves her life after eight seconds and she lives – just.
The remainder of the play is the fallout from this horrific inciting incident, or maybe best described as an igniting incident. Fritz wants us to begin exploring the murky embers, ashes and consequences of such an act. What was her motivation in the first place? Why Parliament Square? Why the method she chose? What did she hope to achieve? Is she sorry? Does she regret her actions? How do you possibly move on? This is a play that opens up enormous third-degree wounds that requires dressings, bandages and years of physiotherapy. This may go some way to heal the physical but it is the psychological that is the meat of this play: an examination into the world’s apathy at turning on the news.
With this as the catalyst for the play, there is no denying that this is as bleak a subject matter as it gets. “What’s wrong with a fucking petition” pleads Cat’s mother. “You can do a hell of a lot more alive than you can do dead”. She is right of course but Fritz wants to examine the role of martyrdom; those ‘brave’ enough to take such an extreme stand to shame the apathetic into action. Fritz never offers us anything specific for Cat’s actions. We assume it is the daily grind we are all familiar with each day as we read the news and feel bereft at a hostile world and the helplessness at the awfulness it can contain. With so much potential to explore and such a frightening opening twenty minutes it is a shame that this play never quite executes what it might. The match is struck but Fritz never lets it burn our fingers.
Everything about this production is deliberately paired back. The stage is occasionally floodlit and the only staging consists of a hospital bed and the occasional Ikea stool. Even the characters themselves don’t come with much back story. Fritz only allows us to know just enough information to make sense of that particular scene. We know nothing of Cat’s background, her relationship with her husband, her mother, her doctor, her physiotherapist or the girl who saved her. Under Jude Christian’s direction, the acting is simple and clear and Fly Davis’ design means that the stage is as sparse as the characters. Even Fritz’s dialogue often fails to complete a sentence. As an audience, we are forced to fill in the gaps, make sense of things that don’t quite fit and ask questions about things that have no real answer. We are certainly not an apathetic consumer of this play.
After such a promising concept the play begins to stagnate as we follow Cat’s ‘recovery’ in hospital and passage of time. The drive of the piece seems to get lost and we begin searching again for the drama that should be evident. The piece touches on so many interesting topics but without quite getting to heart of any of them. With an eighty minute playing time, the play is stuck between a rock and a hard place at present: too long for a piece about one woman’s journey battling back from the brink yet too short to do justice to everything it could possibly explore.
Runs until 28th October 2017 | Image: The Other Richard