Despite being wrongfully convicted of the Guildford pub bombings in 1974, Paul Hill and the ‘Guildford Four’ spent over 15 years in prison. Martin McNamara’s script, based upon letters that Hill (played by Stefan McCusker in this production) wrote to his family whilst incarcerated, seems to emphasise the injustice and brutality that he suffered at the hands of his captors – the villains in this piece are the justice system and the Rest of the World (James Elmes). In today’s society, the police force are held accountable for everything they do and any complaint regarding a suspect’s treatment in custody seemingly results in a full blown enquiry. Jamie Eastlake and Sarah Chapleo direct Your Ever Loving and in many ways highlights how little things have changed in the last 40 years.
Playing every other character in the play, Elmes initially prances around a dilapidated brick wall stage to anarchistic rock music wearing punk rocker gloves and slightly faded makeup that gives him a gaunt appearance. Felicity Reid’s design falls short here and Elmes seems more crazed than sinister. But throughout the performance he demonstrates time and time again why such an approach is so effective. In Hill’s mind, the whole story is fantastical, the prison and the courts like a circus. Once Elmes applies smudged lipstick (when briefly playing the part of Hill’s girlfriend) and begins to resemble The Joker in Batman, he galvanises the whole concept. From the dilapidated wall and brightly coloured circus tent fabric to Elmes’ crazed leaping around stage and manically laughing at the audience, Reid and Eastlake and Chapleo’s vision is clear. The additional slapstick impressions of Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Saville and a thunderstorm add further elements of mockery and farce.
As the central character, McCusker takes an emotional journey whilst trying keep his sanity. At times he seems jolly, trying to put on a brave face as he writes to his family and lift their spirits. But in the moments when one would expect him to be hit for six, McCusker doesn’t seem to generate the required pathos to be truly convincing. This story is one of intense emotional turmoil but the reality doesn’t always translate.
What does hit home is McCusker’s slow but noticeable decline from fervid and impassioned determination to prove his innocence into an apathetic and reluctant admittance of his fate. “My behaviour is not consciously rebellious, but instinctively so”; Hill becomes institutionalised, actively ripping up his links to the outside world into tiny bits of paper.
This transformation is most impactful in the court scene that sees Hill finally pardoned and released after 15 years inside. Instead of the emotional pinnacle to the play (which, having watched one too many American court dramas, is only to be expected), there is an intentionally flat delivery of both the proceedings, the verdict and the now-innocent suspect’s reaction.
It is easy for a politically charged and historically focussed play to become dry. But the combination of script, direction and acting ensure that this story retains momentum. Without being controversial, Your Ever Loving asks questions that are equally valid today as they were 35 years ago. The production is not the most impactful, but it has real elements of powerful and shocking theatre.
Your Ever Loving is playing Theatre N16 until 5 May 2016. For more information and future shows, see Theatre N16’s website.
Photo: Andreas Lambis