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Review: The Hard Man, Finborough Theatre

Posted on 04 March 2014 by Daniel Harrison

“There is so much that none of you will understand about me or where I come from”, Johnny Byrne sneers. And he is absolutely right. I am so grateful that the unremittingly bleak Glasgow gang-world that Byrne inhabits is so alien to me. Yet despite the stark differences between the shamefully deprived Gorbals area of Glasgow in which the play is set, and the comfortable West London location of the Finborough Theatre that houses it, we as an audience are fully absorbed in The Hard Man. Indeed, we are pummelled into submission, akin to one of Byrne’s victims, almost suffocated by the near-to unbearable intensity sustained over two-and-a-bit hours.

And boy does writer Jimmy Boyle know his stuff. Sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of another gangland figure in 1967 (a crime he denies, I’m very quick to add), Boyle’s words clang with gritty authenticity, aided by co-writer Tom McGrath, who went to meet Boyle in prison to help frame and structure the piece. Their work can be seen as a damning critique of a society that allows this to happen, and of children who grow up in dire urban deprivation and become self-fulfilling prophecies. Byrne is “destined for Borstal”, according to his teacher.

Byrne and his cronies Bandit and Slugger live in an environment where violence “is an art form. Practised in and of itself”. All these characters look pasty and unhealthy, more at home slicing faces than fruit. Yet, who is to blame for Byrne and co’s horrifying crimes? The individual, or the society and communities that raised them? Byrne’s first prison sentence is described as “like going to university” – the closest thing to university that these characters and the individuals they are based on will ever get to see – and “like a top-level conference”.

The Hard Man is claustrophobically brutal. There is less light in this play than manages to penetrate through the grimy pub windows. The audience sit there, backs hunched, fists clenched, heart in mouth. Never has an interval felt so necessary. I ran into the cold March air just for a reprieve, to breath and escape. The production is technically superb, but considering its content I cannot be the only one that willed for an earlier finish. With this in mind, The Hard Man should perhaps be shortened by a good 15 minutes at each end. Director Mark Dominy is perhaps too sentimental with the text: some bizarre asides to the audience could be cut, as they appear to add to the length but not to the plot. Additionally, there are too many characters (24 in all); lose the gossiping housewives and the old prison lag and you have a slicker piece.

That said, the performances are mesmeric. Sarah Waddell provides some much, much-needed relief as the gutsy prostitute Didi, Ross F Sutherland is thoroughly deplorable as bent cop Paisley, and Adam Harley displays fine acting talents as both the menacing Bandit in the first half and the understated Johnstone in the second. Martin Docherty as Byrne, meanwhile, is flawless. He twitches about the space, totally unpredictable to the audience. He is harrowing and traumatic to watch: we despise him, we pity him, and ultimately we are entranced by him. Credit also goes to Ross Dunsmore, Jack McMillan and Ruth Milne. This is a strong cast.

The Hard Man is a stressful and unnerving experience. It rams home the hard truths about life not very far away from ours, and is a hard watch. Yet sometimes theatre needs to be.

The Hard man is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 18 March. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Review: The Domino Heart, Finborough Theatre

Posted on 07 February 2014 by Hannah Tookey

The Domino Heart

It may be just a muscle, albeit an incredibly important one, but the emotional significance of this vital organ is enough to drive the plot of Canadian writer Matthew Edison’s sensitive and perceptive play.

A ‘domino heart’ is one that has been passed between two or more recipients. Yet whilst the three characters’ lives of The Domino Heart have been undoubtedly connected, their performances are less so. Each story is performed as a monologue whilst the remaining two actors sit in corners of the stage and write continuously in notebooks.

Cara (Amanda Hale) is driving herself to the point of exhaustion as she agonises over the series of events that lead to a fatal car crash in which she lost her husband. Was it the argument they had in the moments before that caused the crash? Or was it the subject of the argument, an incident that happened 10 years previously, which set the chain of events in motion? Hale performs well as the guilt-ridden and distraught widow, still tormenting herself with a series of what-ifs. She brings a sense of exasperation to the role that makes it clear that she has thought over every possibility thousands of times.

Alongside her, Lawrence Werber is a sweet and grounded Reverend Mortimer Wright. Well into old age and in need of a heart transplant, he is calm and collected, accepting of his lot. He has also hurt loved ones in the past, yet Werber’s steady and soothing pace as he recollects this suggests that the reverend has long since surpassed Cara’s stage of guilt. He’s learnt to live with his actions and to embrace the time he has left, approaching each day with an infectious thirst for life. Werber gives an animated performance that is clearly indicative of this attitude.

Leo Juarez (Rob Cavazos), however, doesn’t generate the same sympathy or understanding as the others. A 33 year old advertising exec motivated by money and involved in dodgy dealings, he reeks of self-interest and a lack of concern for others. He too, though, is in need of a heart. Cavazos highlights Leo’s cynicism and frustration at his own pressurised lifestyle that he believes has led to his faulty heart. Behind a driven and focused façade of a high-flying executive, Cavazos balances Leo’s hardened exterior with his emotional struggle to convince himself that he really is entitled to, and worthy of, a new heart.

Jane Jeffery’s direction is intimate and affecting, but there is a nagging feeling that more interaction between the characters would have drawn a tighter focus on Edison’s philosophical thought. The question of whether one person can be more deserving of a new heart than another is raised in the text, yet as the characters exist in different locations and times, it really is up to the direction to link this idea through their individual stories, which sadly doesn’t happen.

The Domino Heart is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 18 February. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.

Hannah Tookey

Hannah Tookey

Hannah is a freelance theatre and film producer with a slightly worrying addiction to coffee and travel. A graduate of Warwick University, she's worked with the RSC, NYT, and Many Rivers Productions, amongst others.

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Review: Carthage, Finborough Theatre

Posted on 04 February 2014 by Hannah Elsy

Carthage is a piece of new writing from Chris Thompson, member of the Royal Court Studio writers’ group, and is a realist drama surrounding the upbringing of Tommy Anderson: born to a single mother in prison, he is arrested as a young man and dies in prison due to asphyxiation, after being forcibly restrained by the prison officers.

The writing is raw and the content is excellent: a gritty and truthful representation of the complexities of real life human interaction. However, it slightly lacks style as the dialogue is stilted and somewhat forced on occasion. The fact that Thomspon has worked for years in social care is evident, as he is really perceptive as to the ins and outs – and the loopholes – that can surround the maltreatment of a child by an unfair system.

Claire-Louise Cordwell steals the show as Anne Anderson, Tommy’s disaffected teenage mother. Her energy on stage is infectious, as she completely inhabits the character right to the tips of her fingernails. She wins over the audience as soon as she steps on stage with her hilarious South London accent and ability to make herself endearing, although she mistreats her son and encourages him to snort cocaine. Cordwell’s performance helps to break the ice within the room, as the stage is a traverse but the house lights remain on throughout the show, creating little separation between the actors and the audience. This is slightly problematic in some of the more intimate scenes, as it is tricky as an audience member to focus on the onstage action and not look up and around to see how everyone else is reacting. Being able to see other members of the audience is not the most effective way to communicate the story in a actor-centric realist drama. However, the scene transitions for this play are excellent: lighting designer Gary Bowman uses vertically-placed strip lighting and covers each light in screwed-up white paper, so that flickering vertiginous shadows are cast across the room each time one of these is switched on. It’s just a shame that when the actors are moving the set around the stage, they are more interestingly lit than when they are actually performing.

In one harrowing scene, the audience sees Tommy (played by Jack McMullen) undergo asphyxiation in a prison cell, restrained and goaded by three policemen: it is highly disturbing to witness. However, the time frame of the show is disjointed, which leaves the audience in the lurch as to following what should be a simple, linear narrative. The play jumps between two time frames – one that appears to be the present, and another that is the surreal realm of Anne Anderson’s hallucinating mind – which is somewhat incongruous with the realistic content of the performance.

The actors are therefore only given the occasional chance to really get into the swing of things. It is a shame, as when this show is given the time to be compelling, it is very much so.

Carthage is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, please visit the Finborough Theatre website

Hannah Elsy

Hannah Elsy

Alongside reading English at King's College London, Hannah runs around the capital watching and performing in as much theatre as physically possible. She enjoys creating new work, and is currently workshopping new ideas with the National Theatre's Young Studio. Hannah has worked as an arts journalist for the Fierce Festival of live art and Bristol's In Between Time Festival.

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Feature: From social worker to playwright – the making of Carthage

Posted on 29 January 2014 by Richard Walls

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren BellIf Chris Thompson has any nerves ahead of the opening of his first play Carthage at the Finborough Theatre this week, he isn’t showing them. “It’s extremely exciting. I’m still pinching myself.”

Extremely exciting is right. Not only has the play won him a Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme bursary (formerly the Pearson Playwright Award) and a residency at the Finborough, his second play Albion will be premiering at the Bush Theatre later this year. Despite his growing prestige Thompson is philosophical on its rewards. “It feels good not to be lonely professionally anymore. As a writer you’re lonely.”

Having worked in social services for over twelve years, the writer tag is taking some getting used to. Describing Carthage as a deeply personal response to his career, the play explores the fallout arising from the death of a young boy in care as well as the culpability of those who were tasked with protecting him. Though not based on any specific case, the play draws heavily on the emotional complexity that accompanies a career in the social services. “I remember being scared,” says Thompson. “I remember crying in the toilets not wanting to do a visit to check up on a child. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though. You have this privileged insight into people’s lives.”

Thompson stresses that heavy themes don’t make for a heavy play. On the contrary, the play is fused with the humour that has allowed him to navigate his way through his years as a social worker. “The play has turned out to be very funny and rehearsals have been hilarious.” Director Robert Hastie agrees, citing “lovely moments of small victories” for the characters in the play as providing a deft contrast with the play’s darker moments. “What’s beautiful about Chris’s writing is the comfort these characters take in each other when confronted with such adversity.”

Hastie first met both play and playwright over a year ago when asked to direct a reading of an earlier version for the 2012 Vibrant Festival. “I immediately fell for it. I just loved it and count myself very lucky that it came my way.”

Thompson asks whether Hastie has ever found it difficult working with him, given that he has no prior background in the arts, but Hastie refuses to let such modesty go unchecked: “I’ve never met anyone so curious as to what theatre can and should be, and that challenge has really enriched my understanding of what we do.”

The curiosity with which both men approach the work goes hand in hand with a deep-seated trust and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Asked how he has found the collaborative aspects of being in the rehearsal room, Thompson is both assured and relaxed: “I’m very comfortable with the process of it all. You have to let go.”

Getting to this point hasn’t always been easy. Hastie speaks of how earlier on in the process his main challenge was in making Thompson comfortable with speaking on an emotional level about his thoughts and his experiences, to which Thompson quips that, as a social worker, he’s dead inside, before going on to express his gratitude: “I used to go to the theatre all the time, and love what I saw, but social work killed that for me. It’s not that the plays were bad, but that I’ve seen so many bleak and horrible things. But in being spoken to like a writer – and in being treated like one – Rob’s really brought me out of my shell.”

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren Bell (2)

Now both men eagerly await what their audiences are going to bring to and take away from the work. Both stress that the play is not about social workers per se, but rather one which takes a wider societal view interrogating the systems we put in place and rely upon, and what happens when they fail. These are questions for the audience to wrestle with during the play and after. “It doesn’t feel a judgemental play to me,” says Thompson. “I think everyone has to leave with their own sense of the complexities and the greyness.”

Thompson is hesitant about imparting too much advice to aspiring writers but he strongly believes we should keep numerous avenues and routes into the profession open because people need time to find their voices. “As a writer, do something else other than theatre: listen to people, watch people, meet people, see people.”

Hastie argues that aspiring directors need to ensure they are engaging with writers and not just their texts – or the texts of dead writers. “There isn’t a theatre without that first creative spark. It doesn’t need to be a writer, but while there are great writers like Chris out there you would be foolish not to get to know them. Use that spark. There are as many ways of making good plays as there are good plays.”

Carthage is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets visit the Finborough’s website

Rehearsal photos (c) Darren Bell. 

Richard Walls

Richard Walls

Richard is a playwright and recent graduate of the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London. He is currently under commission to Theatre Absolute.

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