Katie Johnstone – Orange Tree Theatre, London

WriterLuke Barnes

Director: Samson Hawkins

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

If only all new directors had the energetic vision of Samson Hawkins. He directs Luke Barnes’ new play, Katie Johnstone, as if it were an Olympic sport. His actors are athletes in this precise, tight production. And despite all the mess on stage, it’s as clean as a referee’s whistle. 

Katie Johnstone is part of the Directors’ Festival running at the Orange Tree this week. Students doing their MA at St Mary’s University in Twickenham are also able to work at the Orange Tree, gaining valuable experience that can’t be taught in the classroom. The Festival offers three students the chance to direct one-act plays of their choice, fully supported by the team at the Orange Tree. 

Luke Barnes’ play seems the perfect fit for Hawkins as the titular character is brash, bold and restless, railing against a world over which she has no control. In a similar vein, Hawkins’ direction is loud and hyperactive, full of music and lights. As Katie, Georgia May Hughes is never off the stage in this 75-minute play, running across Eleanor Bull’s set of AstroTurf and shopping baskets as if it’s an obstacle in the steeplechase. 

Katie is an idealistic teenager who believes she can make a difference in the world, though the poetry she writes is bad and her business plans will never make her a penny. For example, the play begins with Katie trying to flog a hundred Sky remote controls that she’s bought off eBay, thinking there’s a shortage of them in her Northern town. These plans, however foolish, seem better than her other choice: to work in Tesco with her mum.

Hughes’ teammates also perform with verve. Kristin Atherton plays Katie’s mother, and also her best friend, with utter conviction while Reuben Johnson plays all the men in her life, as well as the fox that haunts the city streets. As this most urban of animals, Johnson’s movements are exquisite, crouched on his hands with his feet off the ground, mirroring the poses of Katie Johnstone, another urban creature. They are both at home in the concrete jungle.

Yet, the fox seems to have choices, while Katie must follow her fate. Her life is already written, and as the play becomes an indictment of austerity politics there are echoes of Gary Owen’s searing Iphigenia in Splott, which followed the life of a young woman in Wales, also left with no choices. You would think as Katie’s life narrows, Hawkins would take his foot off the accelerator, but no, he pushes the production right to the end, and the eventual silence comes as a shock.

The Directors’ Festival is only on for a week, but Katie Johnstone in the hands of Samson Hawkins deserves a longer run. Trapped by fate, Katie has no future, but, with this showing, Hawkins certainly has one. 

Runs in rep until 21 July 2018 | Image: Robert Day

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. 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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