The Towers of Babel
Banana Jam Productions
New Century House, Manchester (24:7 Theatre Festival)
Whatever the programme credits say, this is largely an Octagon Theatre production, with David Thacker as director and some actors who have recently played major roles at the Bolton theatre in the cast. All credit to them for pulling out all the stops and sending in the A team to produce this winner of a prize for an outstanding drama by a University of Bolton student.
Nick Yardley's play is set in a New York radio station in Manhattan just near the World Trade Center during the Bill and Baldy Breakfast Show on 11 September 2001. Jewish lawyer Vince from Manchester is visiting his son Justin, who works at the station, and is invited onto the morning programme with "shock jock" Baldy—named ironically due to his mass of facial hair—and his on-air moderator and co-presenter Bill. Justin has left his religion behind and is now in a serious relationship with non-Jewish station producer Issy, something he has yet to break to his father. Meanwhile Vince is trying to persuade Justin to come with him to the Synagogue near to the World Trade Center.
All of this sets the scene nicely for a series of debates on cultural and religious identity, both directly in the hostile on-air discussions between Vince and deliberately provocative Baldy and through the family issues between Vince and Justin.
There is, of course, the additional element of the attacks on the World Trade Center that we know are about to happen but the characters don't. We know the ending of this story for New York, but we don't know the fates of these people, and Yardley cleverly ratchets up the tension by having Justin schedule a meeting with someone this morning inside one of the towers, both of which are clearly visible through the windows throughout the play. The use of the "eye in the sky" reports also works beautifully as each time they cut to him we are expecting something more than a traffic report.
There are many serious debates in this play that have direct relevance to the coming storm, but it is all told with a great deal of humour, but as you are laughing you are always aware of what is about to happen and wondering when it will hit. This makes for a very intense and rivetting theatrical experience.
The play is framed with a speech by Vince at his "Second Bar Mitzvah" in which he tells the story of his 9/11 experience. While this contains some nice pieces about him finding an injured little girl and explaining the title of the play, as a whole it doesn't seem necessary and perhaps takes something away from the pace and excitement of the rest of the play. Another minor niggle is that it seems odd for Justin to tell his father not to tell Baldy that he is Jewish when he has the full European Jewish accent—but perhaps we all sound alike to the Americans.
Thacker's production is light and pacey with very strong performances all round. Kenneth Alan Taylor is perfect for the role of Vince, and Ted Holden seems equally at home as his son. There is a sparkling performance from Georgina Strawson as Issy, Colin Connor is a suitably mischevious Baldy and Eamonn Riley is the perfect foil for him as Bill. We also hear the voices of Patrick Poletti as eye in the sky Kurt and Muzz Khan as Moslem caller Rajid.
This is a really strong and assured piece of work that is more accomplished than most of the new writing we have seen in the main house at the Octagon in recent years. I hope we will see more of both this play and its writer very soon.
Reviewer: David Chadderton