Box

Michael Beswick

Manchester Shakespeare Company

Three Minute Theatre

From 14 October 2015 to 17 October 2015

Review by Andrew Edwards

This new play by architect turned dramatist Michael Beswick concerns the Bennett family.

A perplexing large wooden crate has been delivered to the family home and there’s no clue as to how or whom is its intended recipient. There is much speculation as to what it may contain and why it’s been delivered as the two children and their mother wait for their father and grandfather to return home at the end of their day.

The box is the thing about and through which the characters alternately connect and moan or argue. It is also something which they all bafflingly ignore for considerable parts of the run time.

It is clearly meant to be a symbol of various tensions around community relations and social cohesion in a time of refugee influx. It is noted to have been sent from Somalia and when eventually its origins are explained it’s the source of further neuroses across the family about misperceptions of people from abroad as being dangerous.

Some of this works and holds the interest and some does not. There is a lot of speechifying. There is also a running theme of the problems of the Internet and the social media age. This is discussed mainly by the son and daughter characters Hari and Samitra and then gradually the others get involved as they enter the stage which is the front room of their house.

Hari is an unemployed zoology graduate and rooted in the “real world”. Samitra is a first year university student who is very clearly rather obsessed with her mobile 'phone and the world of social media. Her mobile regularly pings with received texts which became as grating to this reviewer as it does on stage to her mother’s character Anitra.

The action of the play in the first half is mostly concerned with this ongoing debate about the value of the Internet and how people have been conned into believing in it and valuing it when it dictates to them and almost enslaves them. This is quite highbrow and unusual even for an obviously intelligent family to be spending quite so much time doing at the end of a day when they gather together. There is perhaps not enough concern in this first half about why the box is actually there which feels rather odd.

After around 30 minutes, this first half ends rather abruptly and we are no further on in discovering the reason for the box. That’s fair enough to leave us in suspense. The second half is of the same length and as more concerns are expressed about the strange object things do become clearer. We also meet Grampa Joe, the last character, a plain-speaking northerner who is just as bothered by the Internet as most of the rest of the family with the exception of Samitra. Grampa feels excluded from and by the Internet which is an interesting predicament.

There are some subplots concerning racial tensions in the mixed ethnic family’s history and further explication of why Samitra is quite so obsessed with her 'phone. Unfortunately they come rather late in the day and the main discussion of the Internet and its meaning dominates once again.

There is however a good pay-off right at the end before the final blackout which this reviewer will not reveal.

This feels very much like a work in progress. There was a Q and A session after the performance for which this reviewer was unable to stay and for which feedback was sought.

There are a number of issues with the piece as presented. The first and most important is that it is really a one act play which has been split into two but is not long enough or developed enough to justify as a play with an interval. It would work much better to run it for its natural length of an hour with no interval.

The characters are not fleshed out enough and appear mainly to be expressing differing points of view about the problems of the Internet age as opposed to behaving as living, breathing members of a real family fretting about a huge crate in their front room.

This is not an insuperable problem per se. George Bernard Shaw was often castigated for the way his characters sat about speechifying on different aspects of whatever topical issue his play was really trying to evaluate and yet was tremendously successful and is still regularly professionally revived. The trick, if such there be, is not to seem to be doing just that and also of course to be using sufficient wit and ingenuity that the audience is kept on board anyway for the ride.

Apart from the tension between the siblings here, the other characters don’t seem to be relating enough on a convincing emotional level. On a staging note, the mother Anitra, a teacher, spends a large amount of time doing her marking while standing at a unit at the top of the stage. Surely a teacher at the end of her working day would need to sit down as she’d be very tired?

The cast give it their all and are well directed by Gina T Frost. The pacing of the playing is generally good. Harriet Wilson is to be particularly commended for her commitment. She battled valiantly through the throat virus which had robbed her of some of her voice. The appearance of Mandy as Popcorn the dog was also an unexpected pleasure.

It would be good to revisit this work when it has been further developed to allow the characters more room to breathe and not just to represent elements in an extended intellectual argument. The themes of the Internet and also fear of the foreign are very timely and there is a successful play which explores these struggling to be heard here but it’s not ready yet.