Boatman Town – The White House by Tap Social, Oxford

Reviewer: Simon Tavener

Writer: Glyn Maxwell

Director: Helen Eastman

New writing is the cornerstone of the future of theatre. Without it, we would soon tire of endless revivals of established classics. Creation Theatre is to be commended for its ongoing commitment to bringing new plays to the stage as well as its innovative modern repertory production model.

It is clear from his notes that Glyn Maxwell has had a lifelong attachment to the medieval morality play Everyman that has inspired him to write Boatman Town but his evident passion has not translated into a script that carries the same moral weight of the original, nor to a script that fully commands the interest of the audience for the full sixty minutes.

The action takes place in an ‘English pub’ on an unnamed holiday island. Those assembled are a mixture of easily identifiable English tourist types. At best, these could be seen as analogous to the archetypes of the original but too often they come over as lazy stereotypes last seen on outdated comedies such as Duty Free. Of the cast, Hayley Murray is most successful in treading the line between caricature and character in her portrayal of holidaymaker Hayley.

Maxwell is a well-respected poet and certain sections absolutely show his strengths in this style. However, the transitions from poetic to the naturalistic are not always smoothly handled which may be intentional but are nevertheless jarring and hard to justify dramatically.

At the heart of a morality play, there should be a moral question or dilemma that grips the audience or speaks to their concerns. This is something that is not clearly elucidated by the text. The central character of Yvonn (played with evident commitment Anna Tolputt) is torn as to whether she should act even though it might lead to her death but this is a strand that is not explored or articulated with sufficient clarity.

There are moments when the text is reminiscent of Moira Buffini’s Dinner, particularly in the use of a largely silent Waiter character. However, Maxwell’s writing does not come close to matching the thought-provoking wit that Buffini offers.

Helen Eastman, as director, does bring together a talented cast but the overall presentation is hampered by her staging choices which mean that four key sequences take place behind a significant part of the audience. There are always compromises when staging work in found spaces like a pub but putting a quarter of the play out of sight of some of the audience is not the best way to approach the challenges of this particular venue.

Overall this does give the impression of being a work in progress. It has too many unintentional rough edges and uncomfortable moments to be a fully satisfying piece of theatre. The ambition is to be applauded as is the commitment to new writing. But one of the risks when commissioning a new play is that it might not work. On this occasion, the risk has not fully paid off.

Runs until 23 February 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Lacks clarity and cohesion

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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