Writer: Winsome Pinnock
Director: Amit Sharma
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
An unexpected death in mysterious or shocking circumstances can be very difficult for family and friends to come to terms with, convincing themselves that something more meaningful than an accident or mere chance is to blame. Winsome Pinnock’s 2004 play One Under presented now at the Arcola Theatre explores the impact of grief on a small group of people, but while it considers the various consequences of a young man’s untimely death, it fails to provide a satisfactory dramatic structure.
When Sonny takes his own life in the Underground, tube driver Cyrus is given a leave of absence, unable to make sense of what seemed to be a terrible accident. Befriending Sonny’s adoptive mother Nella, Cyrus takes on a number of odd jobs to win her trust and soon has the keys to Sonny’s flat where he hopes to find further clues. But Nell’s daughter Zoe is suspicious and when the trail leads to laundress Christine, does she know more than she’s letting on?
Pinnock’s play dramatises the final few hours of Sonny’s life and the immediate aftermath of his death, attempting to draw a direct line between the two. But the dialogue, and direction by Amit Sharma find very little tension with many of the scenes falling flat or failing to advance the story. One Under isn’t really pitched as a thriller – although Beth Duke’s inter-scene sound design implies it might be – and it’s not really a family saga either. In fact, a confusion of plot lines and themes emerge including mental health, random acts of kindness and a family’s failure to really know each other, many of which are never fully resolved.
We spend a lot of time with Sonny without ever finding out who he is or ultimately why this happened, his fantastical claims about gangsters and minders never explained – is he joking or does his larky tone hide the truth? Likewise, Cyrus is alternately presented as a good man looking for answers in the wake of a significant trauma, but also a creepy and intense stranger imposing his grief tourism on a stricken family.
The cast do well with relatively thin creations, best among them Shenagh Govan as the kindly Nella whose generosity to lost souls belies a firm determination not to ruled by her overbearing daughter. Stanley J. Brown’s Cyrus offers plenty of ambiguity, seeming both profoundly affected by the suicide of a passenger and weirdly determined to believe he has an affinity with the dead man.
Evlyne Oyedokun’s Zoe is fairly charmless as a suspicious and often aggressive protector of her family, while Claire-Louise English as Christine is an unbelievably credulous character but given warmth in English’s performance. Finally, Reece Pantry keeps the audience guessing as Sonny, playing-up the nervous characteristics of a man under attack and the light charm of lad looking for a good time.
Why any of this happens and quite what the point of this revival is becomes increasingly unclear as the scenes plod on. Running straight through at 100-minutes, there’s very little for the audience to cling to here as the investigation into Sonny’s death becomes mired in strange conspiracy theories and territorial battles. As an exploration of grief, it has some things to say about the range of emotions people can experience, but as a conclusion-less thriller it’s quickly derailed.
Runs Until: 21 December 2019