Chasing Beckett is a difficult play about which to write. The plot is simple: a embittered and impoverished playwright breaks into the home of a particularly vituperative critic, and takes him hostage. But then it all gets rather more complicated, with a secret game and some rather unsavory backstories. It raises questions about the nature of criticism, where the line should be drawn between honest and cruel, and whether I’m going to get lynched for pointing out the production’s flaws…
So let’s start with the positives: it’s funny. John Hill’s script has some great one-liners, delivered with panache, and he has constructed a delicately, blackly humorous play which deconstructs the relationship (both real and imagined) between two very different men. Unfortunately, although it does a decent job of breaking the relationships down, it is less successful in its depiction of the rebuilding. Solid performances from Jamie Treacher as Alex and Gary Heron as Hugh reveal a pair of men, neither especially likeable at first, who have hidden depths. So far, so interesting.
What Hill’s play fails to do, under Jennifer Tang’s direction, is to maintain the subtlety of the slow-moving opening half hour. The set-up is simple, and relatively static. With two characters essentially just talking to each other, the drama needs to come from tension between the two, to be ratcheted up accordingly. The initial home invasion is well-executed – it manages to be genuinely shocking without lurching into melodrama (although some of the violence comes close). We are kept in the dark for a chunk of time about who the invader is, and why he has taken Hugh captive. We don’t know his motivations or what he is capable of. A neat, tense opening.
The play lapses, somewhat, in that Hill has given both characters rather complicated backstories, which necessitate a lot of slightly clumsy exposition. While the dialogue is mostly quite tight, with just the odd clunky line, the longer speeches just don’t sound natural. The big reveal, the family secret that has made the critic the rather unpleasant man he is today, is over the top but delivered in such a long reminiscence that it loses some of its potency.
While Hill does well to make his characters many-layered and to steer relatively clear of easy stereotypes, the writing isn’t quite sharp enough to carry the more probing questions it raises but does not resolve. Having broken the critic and got him to admit his foibles and lies, the tension is gone, and Hill seems a little unsure how to end his play. It is curiously unsatisfying watching the endgame after being through the mill with the captured critic and the failed writer. Much of the exposition could be trimmed, leaving a leaner, grittier piece of drama with more intriguing characters.
The design (Mark Friend) was just baffling. In such a necessarily static play (the theatre is tiny and the play almost all takes place within one room) it would have been nice to have a bit more visual stimulation. The lighting (Tom Boucher) and sound (Ben Osborn) were downright distracting – the lighting changes were sudden and felt as if someone was flicking a switch rather than following a series of designed cues, and the sound in the scene changes was a distinctly odd mix of background noise and rhythmic tapping. The size of the space made the set feel both under-dressed and cluttered, and the blocking was often awkward – Alex sits down and leaps back up with a frequency that disrupts the flow. As I’ve said, the theatre itself is tiny, which, coupled with the single-room setting, necessitates clever design to create a world for the play to inhabit. Friend’s design manages to feel both unnecessarily cluttered (framed reviews on the walls – who does that?) and too bare.
However, the production itself is solid, and deserves to be seen. The simple premise belies the complicated plotting and cleverly constructed characters. It’s not perfect, and I’m not convinced that the London Theatre’s claim to be “Fringe theatre how it should be” is quite substantiated yet (not opening the house 10 minutes after the advertised start time would be a good start…) but it’s a nice new space that could well produce future gems.
Chasing Beckett is playing at the London Theatre until 14 October. Visit www.thelondontheatre.com for more details and to book tickets.