Writers: Simon Stephens/David Spencer/Max Saunders-Singer
Directors: Alexander Knott/Ryan Hutton/ Sonnie Beckett
Simon Stephens headlines this triple bill of plays, the first triptych of the Old Red Lion Theatre’s exciting venture to partner established writers with ones less known. However, these one-act plays, linked tenuously by war, are overdone.
The first play, Buried by David Spencer is almost Beckettian. A soldier trapped underground, facing certain death, recalls his life in fragments. Max remembers being brought up by the brothers in Ireland, priests who beat him and then sell him to a farmer in Antrim. One of these priests is even called Father Beckett, perhaps a nod to the play’s form. But Max’s memories stretch farther back and he remembers swimming in the Liffey with his mother. He’s surprised when he suddenly realises that his name was once Noel before the brothers took him.
Max’s narrative is disjointed and jumbled, episodes are repeated while other crucial scenes are omitted. Making it hard to focus on this broken story is Alexander Knott and Ryan Hutton’s direction, which never lets actor James Demaine be still for a second. As he dashes around the stage, jumping on chairs and climbing on stepladders, the strength of the story begins to fade. Beckett kept his actors still, trapped like Winnie in Happy Days for instance, and likewise there needs to be more stillness in Buried and then Max’s words would carry more weight like the ground above him.
The second play, Graceland by Max Saunders-Singer is probably the best of the three. Mr Crichton is late for class, and makes an excellent tumbling entrance. We soon realise that we are his pupils, bored, rude and uninterested in the principles of combustion. The fourth wall is broken as he hands out chemistry textbooks into the audience, and while it’s funny we can see that the teacher, red-eyed from crying and whiskey, is edging towards a crisis. There is real tension here, but we have seen the harried teacher so often that Anthony Cozens can only play him for laughs.
Nuclear War is Simon Stephens’ oddest play. With no stage directions, the script is meant to be complemented by dance, with moves adding emphasis to Stephens’ words. Generously, Stephens realises that once written his plays are out of his control and he considers those who produce, direct and act in his works as collaborators, making something new.
Nuclear War is also Stephens’ most abstract play, telling the story of a woman, isolated and alone, moving through the city. Here, two actors play this woman and as Freya Sharp and Zöe Grain describe her journey, they twist and they jerk to the beat of the words. But again, the direction is distracting as Knott never allows them to be still, and Georgia Richardson’s movement doesn’t appear to reflect the alienation in Stephens’ script. Also having two actors playing the one woman undermines her loneliness in the city. To have them both wearing slips seems also a strange choice, and dilutes the cityscape that Stephens is interested in.
Altogether a bleak evening at the theatre that fails, because of its overbearing energy, to demonstrate how lonely life is.
Runs until 21 March 2020