Writer: Polly Stenham
Director: Jamie Manton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Our lives are made up of a series of stories, memories that we shape, repeat and repurpose as we age until they barely resemble the original facts. Over time, this constructed sense of self changes as new experiences are incorporated and old ideas rewritten to suit the way we wish to present ourselves to the world.
Polly Stenham’s new play No Quarter unpicks this idea of the personal narrative, challenging her central character to face a very different ‘truth’ to the one he believes. Robin has abandoned his music degree and returned home to be with his ailing mother. Entirely devoted to one another, Lily’s grasp of the present is fluctuating and unable to bare the loss of self she takes her own life leaving Robin alone in their ramshackle family home. Believing his politician brother is selling up, and beset with grief, Robin indulges in one last wild night with friends, but as the drink and drugs flow the ‘ugliness’ of the world is revealed to him.
No Quarter is a play with plenty of potential and lots of fiery debate at its heart but needs a sharper focus on the central relationships and to dispense with too many loose ends. Fundamentally, this is a story about a family and Stenham has created three properly fleshed out characters – mother Lily, protagonist Robin and brother Oliver – that have plenty to say to an audience and hint at a lifetime of complex interactions that are ripe for further development.
After a brief introduction to both, No Quarter then swerves onto a parallel track introducing swathes of extraneous characters and pointless scenes that add nothing to the central themes under consideration. From old College pals, a besotted teenage girl, a random drug dealer acquaintance to a childhood friend, they do nothing but add extra stories about Robin to give the audience wider insight into his experiences. Yet none of them has any depth or adds any subplots of their own, so it would be worth reconsidering whether the middle section of the play has any value to the overall plot.
Instead, the scenes between the two brothers that bookend the play, a too brief couple of minutes at the start and a welcome much longer section at the end, are fascinating and riven with the kind of tension that can only exist between discomfited family members. Here is your play, between these two men who over the course of a drunken evening can slowly offer up their ‘perspective’ on their childhood, their parent’s marriage, their mother’s memory losses and the different stories they were told about the past. The contrasts between them have particular dramatic possibility with Robin so shambolic, artistic and emotional, sparring with his practical, very adult brother, Oliver; one who escaped the influence of their mother and one who didn’t.
Robin, played with a manic energy and impressive sense of despair by Ryan Whittle, is a fascinating lead who manages to be innocent, arrogant, frustrating, self-destructive and pitiable all at the same time, while George Watkins’ Oliver delivers a huge amount of insight with little text making it clear how much more this character has to give.
The supporting roles are less successful, partly because they lack purpose on the page and partly because they have become very mannered and stagey in presentation, which detracts from the naturalism of much of the action. Jamie Manton’s design is suitably chaotic suggesting the declining fortunes of a large house while the preponderance for floor lights adds to the dreamy and eerie quality of some of the scenes. Particularly impressive is a strobe drug-taking scene, which very nicely captures Robin’s state of mind and paranoia.
The production does also tackle a number of interesting themes, considering the effects of mental illness, grief and the nature of memory, alongside more political thoughts on the impact of town and country living on personality, the masks people wear, the value of the arts and engaging with the world in order to help – but these could be better served in a tighter plot. No Quarter presents a solid central debate on the construction of memory but needs to rethink elements of its execution fully to reach its potential
Runs until 16 July 2016 | Image:Jamie Scott-Smith