Pretend You Have Big Buildings
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Review by David Chadderton
The Royal Exchange Theatre this week unveils its full, main house production of the winner of the £15,000 first prize winner in the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, Pretend You Have Big Buildings by 26-year-old Ben Musgrave, directed by Jo Combes and Sarah Frankcom.
The play is set in the playwright's native Romford, an industrial town in the south east of England that London has gradually and controversially expanded into. After the death of her white English husband, Ruhksana flies with her teenage son Danny from her home in India to her husband's old home in Romford, which was left to him by his mother, where she has a cool but mostly polite reunion with her sister-in-law. Danny gets involved with Leon, who has a curious interest in some of his mother's clothes and make-up and whose father has to decide between accepting redundancy or standing by his colleagues, and his mate Steven, who spends most of his time drinking cider, fighting or failing to get off with girls.
There are lots of moments in this play that are warm, funny, tender or just purely entertaining, but as a whole the play doesn't hang together. The young male characters are, perhaps not surprisingly, most convincingly drawn whereas the female characters are a little thin, leaving the one adult male character somewhere in between, and all adults tend to behave rather like slower teenagers at times. The play touches on a number of issues but doesn't deal with them in any depth or provide any element of risk, so that even the most apparently divisive of issues is merely the subject of a brief argument before all is forgiven. What we are left with at the core is the relationship between three fifteen-year-old boys from very different backgrounds and with different family issues to deal with in a crumbling industrial town, which is the most convincing and interesting part of the play.
The production seems to try to use as many of the toys in the Royal Exchange's toybox as possible, as all of scenery drops down on wires, even the sofa, we have real water falling as rain and flowing down the road and there is the regular low hum of the motors in the moving lights as they fly around the stage. Jaimie Todd's design sets the whole play on a very convincing pavement and tarmac floor surface with the looming glass pyramid of the old Romford swimming baths hanging down in the centre.
Sacha Dhawan is wonderful as Danny, creating a convincing portrayal of a teenage boy without overplaying it (although as one of the original cast of The History Boys at the National he has some previous experience of this). Billy Seymour's Steven is very recognisable as the stereotypical cocky teenager who thinks he's indestructable, but we also get to see his vulnerable side. Jonathan Bailey brings just enough sexual ambiguity into the part of Leon, and Steve North is superb as Leon's father Rob, a working class man who is being forced to accept changes in attitudes and in power relationships at work and at home. Susan Twist also creates a great character as Danny's auntie Annie. The cast is completed by Tanya Franks as Rob's wife Karen and Shobna Gulati as Ruhksana.
There are sections of this play that contain some very good writing and some excellent performances and are worth seeing, but the play as a whole lacks focus and structure and the production, when it isn't focusing on a nice intimate scene between a few characters, falls back on technical gimmickery rather too much.