With a towering Bruntwood Prize-winning reputation to uphold, hopes were high for this portrayal of individual youth surrounded and trapped by a world much bigger and stronger than itself. War, love and death all rear their heads. In the opening scene, a soggy Blackpool sandcastle is kicked down as soon as its built, its contents covering and scratching the floor in unidentifiable grains; you get the feeling that it’s not going to be a straightforward, crowd-pleasing tale of happy, strife-ridden heroism but rather a story of sheer struggle and perception harrowingly changed by experience.
Every play from the year dot has been about humanity, about individual toil, sacrifice and story. In this case, it is portrayed beautifully through the lost eyes of Carl (smashed out of the ballpark by the amazing Dan Parr), who takes us through the no man’s land of a familiarly decrepit and forgotten seaside town, Blackpool, to the utterly inconceivable no man’s land of Afghanistan.
The audience is initially lulled into the recognisable world of the everyman, cornered and kicking out at the world he was brought up in. He wants more, running constantly from pier to pier trying to beat out loss and the frustration that there have to be bigger fish for him to fry, but getting no closer to knowing what those fish are or where to fry them. He lacks parental insight and direction in equal measure, and the army finds him, offering an escape route on a silver platter, complete with globe-trotting camaraderie and heroism. What he actually experiences is both the discovery and destruction of himself. Facing death on all sides but seeing a meaning to life for the first time, in all its full-frontal honesty.
The most awe-worthy aspect to Gareth Farr’s narrative is his ability to balance the heroic with normality; Carl the Lad schmoozing, boozing and collecting dole in the same corners of Blackpool that he never left to Carl the same lost boy now killing, running, courageously caring and valuing saving above being saved. Farr manages to be unpretentiously and colloquially poetic, drawing the audience in with pace and sincerity. All the while, the army is never once slurred. He is perpetually and shockingly sudden in his narrative but never with so much as a sniff of an anti-war agenda. A delicate theme to play with that I have rarely seen so impressively pulled-off.
The performances of the ensemble match the brutal grace of the writing. Dan Parr as Carl drives the dialogue with manic and hard emotional activity. He drilled that emotion into the audience and exhausted us. Michael Peavoy multi-roles, playing his socks off as the army recruiting officer and as job centre regular Andy Appleton, but it was his role as fellow soldier Bilko that was extraordinarily natural, effortlessly amusing and simplistically heart-breaking. Francesca Zoutewelle showed-off the meaning of multi-role-ing, switching from honest and hilarious Goldie, a Blackpool girl content with her lot and representing a little bit of all of us counterbalanced by her emotionally charged and hard-hitting portrayal of Carl’s mother.
If the title were a question “Does Britannia waive the rules?”, then the play’s answer would be no. The overriding message is that rules are set by the individual, carving out a path and finding turmoil, love and loss scattered all the way through it. It is most definitely a production that I’ll struggle to shake off for a while and I whole-heartedly hope that it reaches London and theatres countrywide so that more can experience it.
Britannia Waves the Rules was at Summerhall @ Roundabout as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information, visit the EdFringe website.