James Lewis
The Old Joint Stock Theatre

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The cast of Flashbang Credit: Ross Kernahan

Flashbang is proper fringe theatre; it’s loud and fast and 80 minutes long with no interval and barely any set. It was first performed in 2022 and it is currently on tour with a new cast.

It tells the story of four male friends in their early twenties, Ryan (played by Nick Hardie), Jason (Benjamin Booth Bennett), Andy (Ben Borthwick) and Deano (Fred Wardale), whose lives Ryan sums up as, work, pub, sleep, repeat. They wear football shirts with ‘GENERIC FC’ on them, they do generic jobs in a generic town, although one with an oddly specific population of 300,000 (Nottingham, maybe?). The actors also have a range of regional accents to further dilute any specificity.

The play takes the form of an extended, direct to audience monologue shared between the actors. Most of the first half is written in the second person, so they say things like, "you do that thing" and "you don’t think", when describing their own actions.

Dialogue is kept to a minimum and the four individual characterisations are sketchy at best. Deano is the ‘mad’ one, Jason is the one the girls like, Andy loves music and Ryan is the everyman narrator. In every other respect, they are identical and completely interchangeable.

The fifth member of their friendship group is Mikey, the sensitive one. He is the first in the group to have a steady girlfriend, Leanne, and the first to face the prospect of parenthood. He and Leanne decide to keep the baby and the friends are delighted. They go round to see Mikey in his sister Siobhan’s high-rise flat, they drink too much and Mikey falls from the balcony and dies. In the second half of the play, we see how the surviving friends grieve and come to terms with their sense of guilt.

All four cast members are terrific, and the director, David Brady, and movement director, Lucy Glassbrook, give the show a fast-paced physicality and energy. The projection is simple but effective, and the uncredited sound design is excellent.

The main weakness is James Lewis’s play. I assume the anonymous town, the second person address and the two-dimensional characters are intended to make this a story we can all see ourselves in, but being generic is not the same as being universal.

Flashbang is a narrative rather than a play. There is no conflict and resolution to draw the audience in and hold our attention, and spending the first ten minutes telling us how boring the lives of the characters are is not the best introduction. It improves in the second half after Mikey’s death, when the quick-fire, second-person, multi-voice narrative slips into a more intimate, first-person account of the individual characters’ grief. The actors play it beautifully, and Ryan’s breakdown in the shower is genuinely moving, but the tragedy has no consequences. The friends are collectively sad when Mikey dies, but after his funeral, they say their own, more personal, goodbyes and they all feel collectively better for it. The play ends on a positive, affirmative note, “I’m not all right, but I will be”, which is a nice sentiment, but it felt glib.

The programme provides contact details for The Samaritans and the mental health charity Mind, plus a dedication, ‘For Mark’, which suggests the play might be based on a genuine lived experience. Young men’s mental health is a serious issue, suicide is the leading cause of death in young people and the suicide rate amongst young men is three times that in women, but I’m not sure what the playwright has to say about it.

James Lewis is well-served by an excellent production and a talented cast, but the play itself feels slight. The Proforça web site defines a flashbang as, "a grenade that produces a bright flash and a loud noise so as to stun or disorient people without causing serious injury". Mikey’s death is the flashbang of the title, but, while the play is bright and loud, it lacks impact.

Reviewer: Andrew Cowie

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