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.