Writers: Avaes Mohammad/Lisa McGree
Directors: Ryan Bettridge/Ellie Hall
The second evening of the National Theatre’s Connections 2023 showcases Eastbury Drama Group performing Is This Good Enough by Avaes Mohammad and St Brendan’s Sixth Form College who take on Lisa McGee’s The Heights. The plays are a great pairing – both written about teenagers, the action in each playing out against the melting pot that is an urban housing estate.
Is This Good Enough? has a strong opening which uses the talents of the cast to present a whole lot of different posses. On the extrovert side are the Party Girls, the Skateboarders, the Footballers and the Rudeboys. Keeping themselves to themselves are a group of uniformed school girls, a pair of Chess Players and, of course, the Drug Dealers. The scene is set for the usual tensions between these clans.
But things all begin to change when a stranger enters their midst, the mysterious Cyroe. He convinces them all to unite and go on a journey to meet the even more mysterious Marharban who, he tells them, will be their leader. Various parents are horrified and try to prevent their children from leaving, but the teenagers are determined.
In the scenes that follow, we see them transported, as they believe, to a miraculous seaside. Later they experience a terrifying storm. There’s a nice bit of ensemble work as the group are split up by a raging river. None of them questions the wisdom of following a charismatic Pied Piper-like leader, and indeed Avaes Mohammad’s script encourages the idea of following a sort of inner wisdom. Cyroe speaks in a kind of heightened, semi-Biblical register, his repeated mantra being ‘Not for the weak, not for the meek, not for the self-deceiving’. It’s all a bit overblown, but the cast throw themselves into the play with evident enthusiasm. It’s remarkable that for some of the 28-strong members of Eastbury Drama Group this is their first time on stage.
The Heights by Derry Girls author Lisa McGee is a perfect vehicle for St Brendan’s Sixth Form College. The central character Lillie is like a character from a fairy tale, her tower block apartment as inaccessible as Rapunzel’s tower. From here she looks down on the characters she can see in other flats or in the streets below. She tells us she makes up stories about them. The lovely set reinforces this semi-magical element: Lillie’s bed is suspended on a platform above the main stage, a vast net hanging down towards her, full of her manuscripts.
McGee’s is a wonderfully wily script, one which turns the whole story-telling trope on its head. Early on Lillie awakes to find at the end of the bed a young woman, Dara, played by an assured Evie Rose Maddox. Dara will become Lillie’s friend, but in this opening scene she is holding a gun at her. Our Chekhovian expectations are satisfyingly fulfilled – several times in fact. But Lillie’s stories are re-visited and rewritten, so The Heights creates comedy rather than melodrama. Lillie, commandingly played by Anna Hewett-Rakthanee, doesn’t want a fairy tale prince: she wants friendship. But McGee plays with the notion that perhaps all the other characters are just figments of her imagination.
The production is tightly directed by Ellie Hall, every character plausibly individualised. What is particularly impressive is the cast’s tremendous ensemble work. There’s an audible gasp in the audience when a character gets pushed down steep stairs, and the group gracefully catch him and lofts him on high. Then they leave him for dead. Lillie has a taste for macabre endings. There is also some seriously funny comic acting, particularly from Joe McNamara and Andy Hannam who play the squabbling twins, Mat and Pat, doomed by their mother’s dying wish to remain united to each other in adulthood, with some nicely unpredictable consequence. This production of The Heights is highly polished and thoroughly entertaining.
Reviewed on 21 June and the Connections Festival runs until 24 June 2023