Royal Exchange Theatre and Bush Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
From 18 October 2017 to 28 October 2017
Review by David Chadderton
There is a lot that is mysterious about James Fritz's play—and I'm still not sure what I make of it.
I can tell you that it was a prize-winner in the last Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, but as no programmes were available for us on press night I don't have much more information other than a list of names. The programme is also a play-script, so it may have helped to understand the play's unusual construction.
The first act of misdirection is the opening act or section which begins looking like an argument between two young women, one encouraging the other to act, before it becomes clear that this is an internal conversation between Kat (a brilliant performance from Esther Smith) and... her conscience? her demons? (Lois Chimimba, billed only as "Voice" on the cast sheet). People from outside her own mind are heard only in voice-over. The whole scene is a "pull back and reveal" in which what she is about to do and why is gradually revealed—but never entirely.
In fact, she is on her way to a terrible act of self-sacrifice, not in order to achieve anything concrete but just to draw attention to how terrible things are getting so someone will do something about it. That is about as specific, and as politically naïve, as it gets; we never learn what exactly has driven her to this, and it seems doubtful whether this is clear even to her.
The second phase of the play is more conventional in that there are scenes between characters where the dialogue is what they actually say to one another—although many of these scenes are very short. Kat is now in hospital in the hands of doctor Jamie Zubairi and physio Kelly Hotten—a fairly familiar, even clichéd portrayal of a physiotherapist until she starts talking about Jesus for no apparent reason.
Kat was saved by Catherine (the similarity in name isn't a coincidence) played by Seraphina Beh and is left to make a long, slow and very painful recovery (you feel her pain as Smith's performance portrays it in wincing detail). However what is more painful to her is that no one noticed; there wasn't the extensive media coverage she was hoping for to persuade all the good people to overthrow the bad people and make the world better.
The last section zips through the years with very short scenes, mostly ending mid-sentence, showing impressionistically how Kat has taken the advice of her mother (Joanne Howarth) to lie about her motivations as even if she had succeeded she wouldn't have changed anything. But "things" are getting worse out there and those who can afford it are taking more and more elaborate steps to protect themselves from... whatever it is that is getting worse.
And so it goes on until the last moments, when perhaps we may learn whether Kat's act really could have made a difference, but no: there is a final shocking event and then a sudden end, when we don't find out whether, as is likely, this event is as pointless and ineffective as the one at the start of the play—which wouldn't paint Kat in a particularly favourable light.
There are some intriguing ideas in both the material and the form of this play. It does portray the passion and intensity of young people who want to change things for the better and their feelings of impotence, but also the naïvety that their single-minded support for a cause can bring. Through the mother, we hear well-worded arguments against Kat's actions and her reasons for wanting to shout her views to the world.
But in its attempt to avoid being specific to a cause or issue, it ends up saying nothing much that is relevant to the real world. And the various methods of putting this all across through different modes of performance come across like well-executed writing exercises.
So I must say that although I don't think it worked this piece did intrigue me in many ways. It did keep my attention for the interval-less hour and a half running time (a good ten minutes shorter than the time that went on the theatre's web site the same afternoon), but it seemed much longer.