Review: Cotton, Waterloo East Theatre

Alex Benjamin’s Cotton investigates the impact of professional gaming on the participants’ impressions of reality. Precocious Kieran (Ben Mallett) throws a game at mid-point after a crisis moment considering what is real, ruining the dreams of the rest of his team, his brother Glen (Will Pinhey), and their friend Tammy (Franci Donovan-Brady). The play follows their respective, largely unsuccessful, attempts to deal with the real world. Meanwhile, Glen and Kieran’s browbeaten father, Alan (George Fincher), struggles to connect with his sons, and keep a roof over their head, in a situation that is all too real, all while failing to propel his sons towards successful engagement in society.

With some really interesting points about how easy it is to hide yourself from real life until it’s too late attempting to peek through, Kieran immerses himself in his Twitch stream and fantasises about creating a perfect world out of code, while Glen can’t get a job in the real world, and he and Tammy find themselves incapable of dealing with real life loneliness. Unfortunately, when we reach these moments of emotional impact, we have not had enough time to forge relationships with these characters and their motivations, with quick-fire scenes launched and over all too quickly, leaving too many questions for the audience come the climax of the piece.

With a bare stage occupied only by wires and hard drives scattered around, the atmosphere of destruction is created, underpinned by basic colour washes and instrumental mood-setters, but it falls mainly to the actors to bring real meaning to a compact, hour-long piece and engage with the audience.

In the face of a sprawling script, they, unfortunately, don’t quite manage it. The first phase of the play rapidly displays their downward spiral and the group’s disintegration, but as those initial scenes have not laid strong enough foundations, the actors struggle to pack a punch later when moments of intensity come, such as the reunion between Glen and Tammy, or the all too brief highlighting of sexist online trolls, or Kieran and his father’s main scene as Alan informs him they are to be evicted from their house while 6,000 watch on Twitch. The audience is simply not invested enough in the characters or indeed feel like they know them well enough to really understand them. Ultimately, the script seems too directionless and the occasional scattergun existential asides do not help in this regard and this means that the relationships that intrigue us the most, namely between Glen and Tammy, and Glen and Alan, is never developed enough. When more intimate moments do come, the dialogue fails to really nail realism, so it’s difficult to believe completely in the relationships and reactions.

Donovan-Brady delivers the best performance as the short-tempered but sensitive Tammy, and is indeed the character who appears most grounded in reality, while Pinhey brings some nice physicality to the role of Glen, who is always stuck in the middle. Fincher gives an admirable showing as the boys’ father Alan, despite being of very similar age to the other actors in real life. His more measured delivery and composure help to display maturity, but we don’t really ever get to do more than scratch the surface. Mallett, while bringing real intensity to Kieran, is often difficult to pick up audibly, as he rattles through stream of consciousness monologues, which appear to reflect direction, but are nonetheless sometimes tricky to follow as the words run into each other. This was compounded by a slight lack of variation from them all apart from Donovan-Brady, and one lovely flash of anger from Fincher. Also, the play starts off so fast and at such high intensity, that it almost leaves them with nowhere to go.

So, there is the odd nice moment, and a lovely final set piece, but the production never feels like it comes together into a focused whole, or finds its direction. At the end I was left with more questions than answers. The characters intrigue, but never really blossom, so the emotional punches never land. I know there was a point in there, it just got lost along the way.

Cotton played at the Waterloo East Theatre until 16 January

Photo: India Howland