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DNA

Dennis Kelly
Hull Truck
Rose Theatre Kingston

DNA Credit: Hull Truck

Is this dark, funny show a true reflection of modern peer pressure? DNA pushes plot ideas to the extreme; if it can go wrong it will. Yet writer Dennis Kelly makes the characters themselves your group of average slightly dysfunctional teenagers.

Originally written for National Theatre Connections as a play to inspire young theatre companies, DNA focuses on a teenage group trying to cover up an accidental murder. A modern day Lord of the Flies, Kelly explores the disturbing world of adolescent cruelty as what started as ‘a bit of a laugh’ quickly develops into abuse.

Desperate to impress, Adam is burned with cigarette butts, made to run over the motorway and finally stoned so that he falls to his death. Meeting terrified in the woods, panic consumes the group and they long for a leader to get them out of their mess, a role taken up by brooding Phil (James Alexandrou).

Kelly’s script, now a GCSE set text, depicts these teenagers as anything but innocent. Their misgivings are minimal; choosing to cover up the crime, then willingly frame an innocent postman. The cracks start to show with some individuals: Brian loses it entirely, John Tate the original leader locks himself away but Phil is guilt-free, happily munching on crisps and Starbursts. It is only the final murderous act that tears the group further apart and pushes even Phil out of his usually unphased demeanor.

Hull Truck has produced a spot on cast of actors, each with wonderful comic timing and able to show depth to their character. Kelly’s dialogue is fast-paced and funny but packs a punch. Leah (Leah Brotherhead) has the insecure teenage chatterbox patter down to a tee, and Richard (George Brockbanks) and Cathy (Elexi Walker) don’t pause for breath amongst their ‘what like’, ‘shutup’ ‘really?’.

Director and designer Anthony Banks stages the work with simplicity as a key idea. The back wall is hung with fridge-esque pvc plastic strips; the only additional set is astro turf grass mats, pulled out when sitting out on the hill. The real beauty is in Andrzej Goulding’s projection and video designs, transforming this blank set into brooding woods or Teletubbies blue skies. The video links and exciting sound design by Alex Barnowski combine to create slick set changes, keeping up the show's pace. As the teens slip into the woods through the plastic sheeting, the illusion is of entering a new covert meeting space through the trees.

Despite being cruel and cunning, Kelly also creates a youthful naivety to the characters. Leah determinedly explains how humans are evolutionally far closer to bonobos than previously-believed chimps. The bonobos are a randy monkey species, but far kinder to outsiders and more supporting of the weak in their group than the unmerciful chimps. Throughout this delivery of newly-acquired facts, not once does Leah see how much her group of friends is acting like chimps rather than, as she believes, their kinder counterparts, the bonobos.

Kelly’s play probes the very nature of humans themselves—and though his depiction of such teenage behaviour is shocking, his mastery of language makes their reactions scarily plausible. This work asks the audience how far would you go to hide the truth? Is one life worth more than saving the skins of a whole group?

In Kelly’s reality, we are certainly closer to the chimpanzees than hippy loving bonobos. ‘A chimp’ll just find itself on the outside of the group and before he knows it’s happening it’s being hounded to death by the others, sometimes for months’.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis