Ella Carmen Greenhill
Box of Tricks
Liverpool Playhouse Studio
Manchester-based Theatre Company Box of Tricks promotes the work of new writers and is proud to do so. Bravo. New voices are always welcome of course. Provided ‘new’ does not become synonymous with ‘young’ then bring on the new.
The company’s latest offering is a two-hander that investigates the relationship between autistic brother Michael (Jamie Samuel) and carer-cum-sister Rose (Remmie Milner). Plastic Figurines charts the sibling’s relationship before and after the death from cancer of their mother.
Samuel and Milner do a commendable job in Liverpool Playhouse's Studio space. Thanks largely to the efforts of these two young actors, this rolls along at a good pace.
Michael, on the verge of adulthood (18th birthday) is portrayed with a deft amount of pathos by Samuel, which is certainly not the case with the more celebrated Derek character of Ricky Gervais/Channel 4 derivation. Milner meanwhile manages to create in Rose a big sister who is also entirely sympathetic, despite nerves which are constantly fraying.
Indeed, both characters come across as likeable, an essential facet given the somewhat unrelentingly dismal subject matter, which takes in not only autism but also leukaemia and road traffic accidents. Melodrama is just about avoided, but it’s a close-run thing.
Thankfully, the darkness is balanced by the innocence of Michael, who is able to say things that could get others thrown in gaol. Rose also manages to retain a sense of humour in what are very trying circumstances.
Scripting is both a strength and a weakness of this production. While both characters are vividly drawn, there are moments when this production needs to show rather than tell. There’s always an awful lot of things happening off stage. We know this because brother and sister tell us as much.
Dramatically speaking, there is just about enough tension to give forward momentum, but one is always waiting for a game-changing moment, to be taken some place else. The death of the sibling’s mother ought to have been that moment. One is left, however, with the distinct impression that brother and sister’s journey begins and ends at the same station.
From a directorial point of view, there are a few rough edges that could benefit from some smoothing. For example, Rose’s highly-charged monologues would be even more powerful without the distraction of little brother’s movements on the opposite side of the performance space. And is there a syndrome whereby people lean to the left? If so little sister Rose has it, spending virtually the entire duration of the play stage left.
Having said that, there’s certainly enough here to maintain interest over the full seventy minutes' running time. Where it scores mostly is in the area of interplay between sister and brother, whose affection for one another is always genuine.
Plastic Figurines is the work of a playwright still searching for a voice, an undeniably sincere attempt to engage with issues. Sometimes though, believe it or not, fewer ‘issues’ can actually equal more, not less, drama.
Hear playwright Ella Carmen Greenhill and director Adam Quayle talk about this production in the BTG podcast.
Reviewer: David Sedgwick