In Doggerland

Tom Morton-Smith
Box of Tricks
The Lowry, Salford
to

Doggerland, in case you were wondering (there are no clues in either the play or the programme), is the name given to the piece of land that connected Britain to mainland Europe until just over 8,000 years ago.

The unstoppable forces of nature eroded that landmass into the sea, just as, more recently, Simon's family's home and most of the village where it was situated was reclaimed by the waves. Not just his home but also his family has been gradually eroded, as his wife died, then his daughter was killed in a car accident, and now his other daughter Kelly, a twin, is estranged from him.

The other half of this play comes from 25-year-old Linus and his younger sister Marnie, the latter the recipient of the heart of Simon's daughter in a life-saving transplant operation. Marnie wants to meet Simon, who is reluctant, and Linus meets Kelly in a coffee shop, recognising her from the photo of her dead twin.

There then follows a pair of rather awkward bonding stories, as people who do not know or trust one another try to come to terms with having something as significant as a living part of a dead family member in common.

It's an intriguing concept and a story largely well-told, but there are some rough edges to the piece. The dialogue begins in a style, popular amongst some playwrights, of fractured sentences that talk around the subject and hint at meaning to give a heightened impression of real speech. By the end, though, the speeches become quite lengthy and appear to be moving towards a more lyrical style, discussing the themes and personal feelings in a much more explicit way, which makes them feel overlong and unreal.

I've often heard the advice for new scriptwriters to cut the first section from your first draft to jump straight to the action, as the chances are those early scenes aren't necessary. Here there is an opening scene flashing back to years before the rest of the play and an epilogue that flashes forward that don't serve any purpose at all.

The rest of the play works pretty well with some nicely-drawn characters, although some of the later conflict seems forced and unmotivated. There are lots of issues about family, transplants, memories, photography and more woven into this intimate tale. But I kept having the feeling that there was some much bigger, underlying metaphor that either wasn't clear enough or which I wasn't able to find. There is breadth in the tale, but perhaps not quite the depth for which the writer was aiming.

There are also a couple of big questions that are left hanging that feel like a cop-out rather than deliberately leaving the answers to the audience's imaginations; the big one is how Linus found Simon, which is explained dismissively and not entirely convincingly, plus there is the issue of what happened to Linus and Marnie's parents. This has the curious effect of making the characters appear to be isolated from history and from the rest of the world, despite the significant events that we know about in their pasts.

Hannah Tyrell-Pinder directs with an impressive sense of pace, allowing the scenes to unfold naturally without fear of silences. Recent Manchester Theatre Awards winner Natalie Grady once more stands out with her superb portrayal of Kelly, but there are also nice performances from Clive Moore as Simon, Benjamin Blyth as Linus and Jennifer Tan as Marnie.

It's an intriguing piece with some clever ideas, likeable characters and even some nice flashes of humour and certainly worth a look, but I felt as though it should have sent me away thinking more deeply about the issues it raised.

David Chadderton