Pilot Theatre & Lincolnshire One Venues
York Theatre Royal Studio
This new piece from youth theatre practitioner and emerging playwright Jessica Fisher tackles questions, both specific and general, of community and engagement among young people today.
Developed from a script entered in Pilot Theatre’s Generation Zed competition, Ghost Town is emblematic of many of the company’s recurrent strengths: Pilot habitually aims to develop new writing, to target teen and older audiences, and to address issues of the day.
Their work is often serious and intense, though at its best it leavens the important topics examined with humour and lightness of touch, as in the 2012 modernisation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Director Katie Posner was recently responsible for the much gentler community verbatim project Clocking In, but this play is a return to the company’s favoured territory of troubled teenagers wrangling with the world into which they find themselves unfairly thrust.
None of which is intended to suggest any hint of self-parody in the text or performances. Over an atmospheric, ebbing and flowing soundscape by RJ McConnell, the seaside setting emerges as the battleground on which Joe (Damson Idris) and Megan (Jill McAusland) kick over their history together and the tentative memory of a horrific crime Joe may or may not have committed.
The performances of Idris and McAusland are terrific, Idris tensed and frantic, McAusland in particular enjoying softer moments alongside the mounting tension of the piece. There is a third character too: Sheila Atim as Keira. This is some sort of mother-figure / tormentor whom only Joe can see. Atim is a striking presence both physically and in the intensity of her performance, and the three work wonderfully together on the simple but nonetheless imaginative set, designed by Gem Greaves.
Posner’s direction has drawn committed performances from all three cast members, and the developmental work by Fisher and Pilot has produced a play which is simple but rich in visual imagery and sustains a forward drive throughout.
It is this intensity, however, which is the most problematic aspect of the play. Like the more mature works previously tackled by Posner in the same space—in particular David Harrower’s Blackbird, which has some parallels in style if not thematics—this is utterly unrelenting in its demands on actors and audience.
But where Harrower (for instance) modulates with pitch perfection the play’s movements of softness and sympathy with those of fury and vitriol, this text, and the performances it engenders, strike more of a single note. Once Idris and McAusland have ramped up to the peak of their performances, there is little room to manoeuvre, and the audience is left somewhat assaulted by the anger and urgency of every line.
There are moments which are clearly intended as respite from this fever pitch, such as monologues in which Joe describes watching common-or-garden revellers on a weekend out—girls staggering down the street ‘like paper chains’. In performance these offer little by way of variety, and at times the switch from the well-drawn characters into this heightened, simile-heavy language feels too laden with the burden of writing-room exercise. The ending feels somewhat pat, too, falling at a moment which suits the production’s brief 60-minute length rather than arising organically from the action of the play.
These are flaws of much developing writing, and there are also one or two confusing gestures towards universality. The glancing reference to the 2011 London riots opens more questions than it satisfactorily resolves – and muddies the issue of who or what Keira is actually meant to represent: Joe’s state of mind, or a wider point about a disaffected nation?
But when Fisher concentrates on the truth of the dialogue between these embattled but loving young people, she flies. And the depiction of Joe’s condition—a form of obsessive compulsive disorder—is compassionate as well as compelling.
This is, then, a production put together with love and empathy, and one which, despite its flaws, is worth catching for its strong, believable and engagingly hopeful portrait of youth dysfunction and disconnection.
Reviewer: Mark Smith