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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at The National (Paintframe)


  Trevor Cooper in The Swan/ Ph: Johan Persson

The National Theatre’s hangar-sized Paintframe is where scenery is made to look real. Converting this industrial place into a performance space has given these new 80-minute plays by emerging playwrights an edgy, experimental feel. Not that Sam Holcroft’s Edgar and Annabel is lacking edge. You know something is not quite as it should be when characters read from scripts.

In this case it is crucial to the actors’ survival that every word they say comes off the page. Otherwise the government microphones hidden around the couple’s kitchen will detect that they are not a normal couple after all but a secret cell plotting a guerrilla war to overthrow the regime. This is a Britain verging on totalitarianism.

Holcroft’s small but perfectly formed Orwellian nightmare demands the suspension of more disbelief than a drama has the right to ask of its audience. Microphones in every home? A Britain where dissent can be planting bombs or questioning recycling? But because Lyndsey Turner’s production avoids silliness by staying just on the serious side of satire, we go with the flow in the knowledge that we don’t need to keep our disbelief suspended for more than an hour or so. Holcroft – whose full-length debut in 2008 explored the male appetite for war – undoubtedly knows this. Her latest offering is an example of get-in-quick and get-out-fast-drama, the kind that is over before you have time to ask awkward questions about the nuts and bolts of a story. 

Here, alongside the author’s serious point about Big Brother-style government, Holcroft skillfully develops the antagonistic relationship between Kirsty Bushell’s seasoned agent and Trystan Gravelle’s former soldier into a perfect little love story. And the scene where they manufacture bombs in the kitchen while singing karaoke in order to fool the government’s microphones is a lesson in writing visually for the stage without a word of dialogue being spoken. 

By contrast, DC Moore’s The Swan, named after the London pub in which it is set, is all about language – much of it enjoyably profane. The realistically grubby setting is designed by Soutra Gilmour – responsible for the look of the plays in Double Feature – and almost reeks of stale beer.

Moore is a Royal Court writer with a clutch of Most Promising Playwright Awards. But that promise is only hinted at here. Set in the wake of a funeral, its grizzled old hero is Jim (Trevor Cooper), the father of the deceased. Moore’s plot sees Jim attempt to keep his son’s reputation for womanizing from reaching the woman he lived with.

It appears that Moore’s main concern is not only to reveal that there exists a salt-of-the-earth type under Jim’s salty language, but that deep down working-class people have hearts of gold. It’s an objective that comes across as patronizing, which Moore disguises with the toughness of the exchanges between his characters. True, there are a fair few plays that reveal the callousness that underlies the so-called civilized behavior of the middle classes. So why not this way round? Well, on this evidence partly because the revelation here is less interesting. Nor does it feel much like a revelation.
That said, there are some gripping character studies. Most gripping of all is the dead man’s ex-girlfriend Amy, played by a brassy Claire-Louise Cordwell, who negotiates the sensitivity of the mourners and peels back the platitudes that speak well of the dead with the delicacy of paint stripper. But character isn’t enough, and by the time we get to the well-crafted end – a moment that anticipates the arrival of more tough, working-class mourners – the play has long been living on borrowed time. 


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