It’s quite possible that there isn’t a more apt location for Open Works Theatre and Look Left Look Right’s production of Debris than the Little studio of the Southwark Playhouse. A skilful and thorough collaboration between director Abigail Graham and designer Signe Beckmann sees this small black box studio immersed in the semi-fantastical, dark and gritty world of Dennis Kelly’s play.
The design borders on immersive: Beckmann has harnessed the existing elevator shaft and scattered the floor with broken pieces of brick – the real debris from the play’s poignant death. One by one the bricks are kicked and thrown – sometimes only roughly in the direction of the hefty pile of them on the stage. It’s a minimalist design, but necessarily so, and it allows her to effectively create a landscape barren enough to match the pain ingrained in Kelly’s work.
Damaged from a dysfunctional and tragic upbringing, reeking of agony and neglect, teenage siblings Michael and Michelle now find themselves orphaned following the dramatic crucifixion of their father.
There’s a certain performativity that comes with playing children or young adults, which Leila Mimmack and Harry McEntire handle with ease. Delicately running along the line between acting and naturalism, they both manage to maintain a conversational tone that draws us in to their story, and makes hearing of their pain and heartbreak so much more affecting. At the same time, Michelle’s unhealthy zest for developing surreal and elaborate retellings of her ‘memories’ is fully embraced by Mimmack and brings a strong vulnerability to the character. She is at once naïve and innocent, simply longing for a home and a family, and at the same time scarily erratic and uncontrollable. McEntire is also superb as he switches almost instantaneously between grinning cheekily at the audience and releasing his frustration through threatening attacks on his sister.
The stresses of these fragile lives are played out across a 70 minute series of monologues and outbursts. Director Abigail Graham has ensured tensions remain high throughout but it is when the two actors come together that the play really electrifies. Even brief interactions between them reveal a huge amount about how deeply they’ve been affected by their family tragedies. Even a simple discussion about a TV brings a moment of hope and normality amongst the absurdity.
The only trouble is Kelly’s dense and sermon-like text which occasionally feels a little superfluous. Whilst for the most part it’s snappy and humorous, it’s bulked up with a number of lengthier monologues that don’t serve much purpose. The cast navigate it swiftly though and coupled with strong direction from Graham, this makes for a succinct production that delves into this unsettling world with full force.
Debris is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 17 May. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Richard Davenport.