Black Lion, Salford
This 50-minute play by local playwright Cathy Crabb was performed as a one-off benefit in advance of a local tour for the Black Lion, home of Future Artists, following a break-in last week. The donations on the door are to be spilt between the pub and the Help For Heroes charity whose donation pots were stolen in the robbery.
On the surface, it would seem that this play is particularly apt for this situation as it was written following the riots in London, Manchester and other cities just a year ago when a great number of commercial and residential properties were damaged and looted. But it isn't about the riots; Crabb was annoyed at how young people in general were demonised following the riots and so created this pairing of loudmouth Peter spouting Daily Mail-style calls for justice and punishment and more liberal and tolerant barman Paul to debate these issues.
Peter is the manager of a Cash Converters with a very low opinion of those desperate enough to require his services, but he is very bitter about how he lost his job in a bank and how his relationship broke up, which could draw one to infer a neat psychological explanation for his bitterness which many who hold similar opinions don't need. Paul, on the other hand, is very tolerant of Peter's behaviour and opinions without being frightened of voicing his own.
The third character in the play, represented only by a left-behind umbrella, is Tony, who is everything Peter hates: a musician / artist, works with the disadvantaged, has liberal political views. Tony becomes a clever device through which to debate various issues about poverty, art, crime, young people and much more, going beyond the obvious issues arising from the riots.
Crabb has said that Peter is based on Milton's Satan, which works well as an influence but director Phil Dennison has taken it further with blackouts for slides of Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost and silent-movie-style title cards such as "Peter's Miltonic Fall from Grace", which takes it from a subtle theme to a rather heavy-handed concept that the play doesn't need.
The play isn't all about deep political discussion though; there is a thread of humour running through that lifts the play that, at times, is hilarious while still keeping to the issues and treating them seriously. While the piece is more of a meandering discussion than a well-structured plot, the humour keeps it interesting and entertaining.
The actors' performances are both good in their own way but their styles are very different. Daniel Street Brown's Paul is played naturalistically with some beautifully subtle touches, able to get a laugh from a perfectly-timed pause and the slight raise of an eyebrow. Neil Bell plays Peter in a much broader style for a lot of the time, much of it played out front rather than to the barman.
It works perfectly to have Paul behind a real bar in this small pub room, giving it an authentic touch, although Paul was obscured in shadow in some early scenes due to some awkward positioning and the lighting only coming from one side.
While there is nothing controversial, surprising or hard-hitting about the political argument even to most Daily Mail readers, Crabb has succeeded in putting across a few points about politics, young people and the arts in an entertaining way, and at just 50 minutes it doesn't get chance to outstay its welcome.