MEAT is a play that takes a while to get your teeth into, but once you do, it’s tough content to chew. With the first physical confrontation, the initial humdrum kitchen sink drama it’s dressed up to be (designed by James Cotterill), suddenly comes alive. And the impact is visceral.
Jimmy Osbourne’s new play (developed with Director David Aula) is set in the familiar surroundings of a town where everyone knows, or rather gossips, about their neighbour. Of course there’s the obligatory gang of hoodies, temperamental teen, and share of mid-life crises – nothing out of the ordinary. Until one of those young hooligans is murdered (Rob, played on edge by Ian Welchardt) , and as young Carla says (Charlotte Whitaker), it’s like the town has woken up and are on the hunt for justice. Osbourne’s social commentary loses its way because this voice of revolution struggles to be embodied by a singular, stroppy character (this isn’t for want of trying on Whitaker’s part). MEAT is moving because the focus falls upon a single family at the centre of these tumultuous events, and the ironic question of whether it was the butcher who butchered a youth that questionably deserved his fate.
The problem is that I believed in the story, but not in the characters. Osbourne’s dialogue is very clever; the characters are forever interrupting each other, they never seem to be having the same conversation, but this can be jarring to follow. When Joy and Vincent’s relationship reaches equilibrium, it’s startling the difference more balanced dialogue can make. Consequently, since the play takes time to find its momentum, so do the actors. They all seem a little forced, as if overcompensating in the small space. As downtrodden wife Joy, Tracy Brabin slowly finds that glow of ‘joy’ again. On the other hand, Graham Turner finds his stride too late as Vincent, only inhabiting a humane character at the climax. By playing the rest of MEAT harder, as Vincent-the-head-of-the-household, he simply lacks charisma. Still, the cast develop a cathartic sense of unity as a family despite the disturbing circumstances. This prevailing filial devotion is the heart of this play, and strikes at the heart of the audience.
In the close proximity of Theatre 503, Alison De Burgh’s fight direction is so real it turns your stomach. And your stomach sinks that little more every time you see a butcher’s knife – but the use of pillows in the place of pigs for the butcher to gut, exemplify how Aula’s staging continually detracts from the sting MEAT could have. The metaphorical battle for power within the household: backing characters into a corner, the condescending motif of kissing the subordinate character on the head, are such blatant gestures they’re more like exercises that should be reserved for the rehearsal room. At the same time, you can’t argue this sense of structure exposes animal-like tendencies in the family, each struggling to lead the pack. Similarly, Aula seems to lead the audience’s reaction in this way, by trying too hard to make MEAT mean something when it’s all there in the script.
MEAT has all the ingredients of a great play, and therein lies the problem. As a team, Osbourne and Aula have been so formulaic that they defeat themselves, yet at the same time deserve praise for such detail. MEAT isn’t allowed to find its natural rhythm and consequently, no rapport is built with the audience from the beginning. But when we do reach the meaty scenes of this play, it has the power to smack you in the face.
MEAT is playing at Theatre503 until 30 June. For more information and tickets visit Theatre503’s website.