Dennis Kelly
New Wolsey Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre

DNA poster Credit: New Wolsey Theatre
Cast of DNA Credit: Will Green photography
Charlie Shephard & Mae Munuo in DNA Credit: Will Gren Photography

DNA by prolific writer Dennis Kelly was born out of a National Theatre initiative to develop plays for young people specifically between 14 and 18 years old.

It has since become a set GCSE text and been studied by up to 40,000 students.

Debuted in 2008, it has its roots in the classic novel Lord of The Flies as, like that iconic story, it deals with pack mentality, bullying, peer pressure and fluid morals amongst a group of young people whose baiting of a misfit student goes too far with tragic consequences. But then an elaborately staged cover-up gets them even deeper into murky waters leading them all to question their loyalties and motives.

This was performed a few years back by the New Wolsey Theatre’s Young Company in the Studio—and that previous excellent production benefited from the claustrophobic feel the confines of that small space gave to this rather disturbing take on group teenage behaviour.

New Chief Executive / Artistic Director Douglas Rintoul has chosen this as his debut at the New Wolsey and has innovatively chosen to cast newly qualified local actors, many making their professional debuts on this Ipswich stage (including a few who started their journey with the New Wolsey Young Company).

On a minimal set of poles depicting the woods, with movable bench and bin when the action changes to the local park, and with a loud, insistent soundscape punctuating the scene breaks, ten actors play out this descent into anarchy and ultimately murder in a fast-paced, tightly directed production that, although slightly diluted by the space of the main stage, still creates an intensity and sense of menace.

Mae Munuo and Charlie Shephard are a great paring as ‘sort of friends’ Leah and Phil whose interactions on the park bench are central to the plot. Leah chats constantly but gets next to nothing back from Phil—yet their interactions speak volumes. Her admiration for his seemingly controlled emotions gradually turns to something that breaks her as, when he finally speaks, he reveals a cruel, unnatural character defect that makes him not only the de facto leader of the group but a brutal manipulator that, rather than helping matters, spirals their situation out of control.

The rest of the cast work really well together to develop the other characters and the plot into a believable whole. Especially notable are Ntabiso J Bhebhe as Mark, Jessica Laitt as Lou and Shaun Jenkinson playing the duel role of Adam and John.

It would have been good to have seen a bit more physicality between the characters—and maybe a more graphic depiction of some of the implied violence as the characters are picked out in shadow against the back of the stage.

But at an hour and 10 minutes, this is still a really intense evening—and if you haven’t seen this classic play, then it’s a good opportunity to experience a pretty slick version and to see some of the best emerging talent in the region at the same time.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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