Chapter Arts Theatre, Cardiff
Sgript Cymru have struck gold with the new writing talent, Alan Harris. His first stage play, Orange, is a compelling story of the kidnap of a successful Cardiff Muslim by two young white men.
It is an adrenalin hit from the opening scene; an hour and forty-five minutes of unremitting, edge-of-your-seat tension.
Enter two masked men, one hostage, bound and hooded, and a very large knife. The cacophony of frantic music which forms the soundtrack and lends a furious pace echoes the audience's pulse rate as much as the speed with which the two kidnappers move about the stage.
Tessa Walker's direction sustains this pace throughout, amplifying the disorientating sense of the passing of time that Harris has subtly woven into the text. Night and day roll on: here Chippie fills a cupboard with Pot Noodles for his brother; there it appears half-empty, and you realise days have gone by. Fireworks and bonfire night are swiftly followed by the muffled sounds of distant Christmas Carols, and suddenly weeks have passed.
The set, a grimy Cardiff bedsit, is well designed by Sophie Charalambous. Even before the actors arrive on stage it feels cage-like; claustrophobic. The filth, the single mattress on the floor, and the pornography and used tissues at the bedside, paint an uneasy picture of its occupant as one without hope; trapped in a thankless life.
The provocative script is realised both by insightful direction and a highly able cast. Together, they have created a world that never fails to draw you in.
Chippie (Lee Bane) and Viv (Geraint Hardy), his corruptible younger brother, give complex characterisations that create an utterly convincing, damaged relationship; both seem inter-dependent, misguided, angry and disempowered. They claim to seek revenge for extremist Muslim terrorism. In fact it becomes evident that Chippie is enraged by political half-truths and racial ignorance, and that he is lashing out against the every-day injustices of his own life.
Bane gives him an un-hinged, dangerous edge. He has a menacing, feral quality: unpredictable and nervy, constantly on the move and belligerent. In the closing moments, a look of repugnance flickers across Bane's face as he takes in the scene, and you realise that ultimately Chippie is also a coward. It is his younger brother that he entrusts with the knife; that he imprisons, and manipulates into crime.
Hardy succeeds in endearing Viv to the audience as much as he does to Saleem (Marc Anwar). His child-like bewilderment is played out as much in Hardy's twitching physicality and subtleties of expression as it is in the text. It is an absorbing and memorable performance.
At first Viv appears to dismiss the wretched and snivelling Saleem as less than human. He derides Saleem's request to pray with a brief snigger of amusement. He wafts food under his nose instead of feeding him. He leaves him overnight in soiled clothes. He even masturbates noisily in front of him, as if he is alone.
Anwar gives Saleem powerful physical presence on stage, lending him an authoritative dignity: you know he is an intelligent, decent man. Though gagged, blindfolded, chained and bound, Anwar's performance leaves you in no doubt of what's running through Saleem's mind. He works to gain the psychological upper hand, interrupting Viv, mid-orgasm, to shout "Can't you do that in the shower?" Through the comedy of the moment, there is nonetheless a power shift. Saleem asserts his humanity, makes a demand, and Viv begins to acquiesce.
In the end, Viv is as much of a prisoner as Saleem. Tessa Walker's direction challenges us to see this for ourselves: as both men sit playing cards together, their bodies mirror each other silently. Both sit hunched and cross-legged; one is masked, the other blindfolded. Though one has the knife, he rarely chooses to pick it up. But, ultimately, Viv's only way out will be to do as his captor bids.
As Chippie creeps stealthily up to the front door, about to catch Viv and Saleem in the act of playing cards together, the strain on the audience is palpable. A guy in the front row sat on the very edge of his seat. A woman next to me covered her face. Someone behind me groaned. And as he finally burst into the room, I realised I'd not taken a breath. You will it to turn out alright in the end, though you know it probably won't.
A thought-provoking and visceral piece of theatre, that provokes us into examining how far we will go to instigate change. As Chippie says, "It'll be a f***ing petition next. Then you knows you're really in a jam, when they gets the petition out."
'Orange' runs in the Studio at the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, until 23rd September.
Reviewer: Allison Vale