Queen's Hall Arts Centre
Live Theatre, Newcastle
Watching Lee Mattinson’s short and wicked play, Never Forget, reminded me at different times of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and a little-known Alan Ayckbourn play featuring a head transplant after an airplane propellor decapitation (title forgotten), all of which are served up with a strong whiff of Sigmund Freud.
Which might be to deny (unfairly) the play’s originality. It’s a crackling 40 minutes, comic, sad and occasionally bordering on the grotesque.
Here’s the plot. After a terrible facial accident in a fire leaving her with a ‘charred skull’, Martha eventually gets the chance of a face transplant. The one problem is the donor, a singer in a Take That tribute band who recently drowned, is/was male, called Ethan.
Oh yes, there is a second small problem too. It later transpires that Ethan and Martha’s husband Fergus were once secret lovers.
Put that in your pipe, as they say. This is such combustible material we risk a sudden conflagration at almost every moment and if I were to have a criticism it would be that the play’s time span can scarcely contain the piece’s potential. At the end there’s a strong sense of wanting more, an ambition to which all live entertainment is supposed to aspire, so I choose any caveats with caution.
Rosie Kellagher directs this two hander with a deceptively light touch, an almost sitcom approach beneath whose surface bubbles all kind of implications. Moments that stay in the mind include the slow unravelling of Martha’s bandages (at this stage we have no idea what to expect) and the couple’s first post-op kiss some time thereafter—an act whose physical, sexual and psychological relevances have us shuffling uncomfortably in our seats.
Chris Connel plays Fergus. He’s a brilliant actor, still underrated despite international success in the likes of The Pitmen Painters. His portrayal has an initial kind of middle-class Good Life bonhomie surface which is increasingly unable to disguise the angst, confusion and guilt.
Adam Donaldson’s impressive Martha is more sombre from the outset, an almost fatalistic sense on how life can give with one hand and take away with the other. The duo’s combination makes the play, on a simple half-abstract, half naturalistic set, compulsive viewing throughout.
This is the third in the Bitesize series of short new plays by north east writers produced by Queens Hall Arts, Hexham and performed in the small studio theatre on Newcastle’s Quayside.
Mattinson is the most experienced of the three playwrights, an author with a fertile and restless imagination, most at home with finding truth in the most mind-blowing or unlikely situations.
He may be tempted to turn Never Forget into a full-length play. There again he might prefer the Oxo cube type concentration of ingredients when too many stage plays seem as diluted as weak tea.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer