Usually hostage situations involve helicopters flying overhead, a barely controlled and heavily armed maniac and something ticking, possibly linked to some C4 or at least a nuclear warhead. Here we have a scared school kid holding a couple of threadbare comprehensive teachers hostage by threatening to drop a cigarette into a motorbike's tiny petrol tank. Oh Hollywood, how far you've come!
To an extent, it's unfair to take Gotcha to task because the hostage situation is implausible. The practicalities of the situation (it's actually quite difficult to set gasoline on fire with a lit cigarette and even if does burn, it's only a surface fire) are distracting but should be put to one side.
It's fine that this is not an attempt at realism, more about making a more symbolic point and allowing for a situation within which certain tensions can develop.
Nor is it too much of an issue that the somewhat ridiculous hostage situation is played straight. This is not a humourless play but one that is not self-aware enough to see the overarching humour in the situation. A missed opportunity, but not grounds for failure.
What is problematic is that Gotcha is deeply indecisive, veering between shallow character study and underexploited socio-political theatre.
The core drama is around the 16 year-old turned criminal but there is never enough detail or engagement - the character is continually anonymous - for this to be successfully character driven.
The other side is the compelling issue that a 16 year-old can feel that he has no future and might be right. Yet this is skirted around throughout the performance, with some mercilessly padded scenes. It only really comes to a head at the end in a brilliant moment that comes too late, where the headmaster promises the kid that he can be both a brain surgeon and a striker if he just sets his mind to it.
Partly because of this hesitance, there is very little real tension. The hostage situation is not only tired but, despite some textbook attempts to force tension, a bit dull. At several points the hostages' only input is to bleat "why are you doing this?" and there is barely any sense of actual danger.
That the characters are not fully fleshed out does not help. One small point shows this well: in the opening scene two teachers are breaking up and the younger woman, distraught, asks if he knows what it's like "when you love so one so badly you could tear out your innards for them." Then towards the end of the play the schoolboy asks why she went out with the other male teacher, since shown to be an immature bully. She replies that it gets lonely sometimes, directly contradicting her previous emotional outburst.
It's a small slip up, irrelevant to the central action, but it's also sloppy and shows that the relationship dynamics have not been properly thought out.
Despite all this there is a rugged charm through the seams. The boyish atmosphere of a typical comprehensive is well captured, nicknames, bullying and all, giving a certain authenticity to the night. The main character and force of the play, Jake Roche, is particularly good, humane and warm while clearly vulnerable. There are also some good lines and jokes, nothing too stunning, but enough to keep the ball rolling.
There's a wasted opportunity here for looking at the contradictions underlining meritocracy. It's not just that none of the characters are compelling, or that the performance could easily be cut by a third, it's that Gotcha is ultimately vague while trying to be sharp.
"Gotcha" is playing at the Riverside Studios until the 19th March 2011
Publication of this review was delayed because of email problems. Many apologies!
Reviewer: Tobias Chapple