Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Just as this year's Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting opens for entries, the previous winner of the biennial competition finally hits the stage.
It does appear from recent winners that to do well in the Bruntwood, it is necessary to write a play about abandoned siblings trying to survive by themselves in a single room on a very rough estate, but Anna Jordan has taken the formula used by previous winner Two Birds and the far more interesting Judges' Prize winner Brilliant Adventures and created something that is rather good.
The siblings in this case are 16-year-old Hench and his 13-year-old half-brother Bobbie, whose alcoholic, diabetic mother has moved in with her latest man. To make it worse, they took their washing to their gran, who then ran off with an asylum seeker, leaving them to share a tee-shirt. Their dog, Taliban, has the bedroom, so the boys share the sofa bed in the living room.
But there is more to this play as there is a sort-of love story integrated with the urban survival tale, as 16-year-old Jennifer arrives from Wales to stay with family after the death of her father. She manages to bond in different ways with Hench, Bobbie and Taliban—but not with the boys' mother.
Inevitably things don't go smoothly; in fact this makeshift family gets broken up in quite a shocking and unexpected way that fundamentally changes the lives of all four of them. The play does end on a note of hope, but rather than than the ambiguity for which the play appears to be aiming it seems not quite fully-formed.
There are very impressive performances from all four cast members: Alex Austin as Hench, Sian Breckin as mother Maggie, Jake Davies as Bobbie and Annes Alwy as Jenny. Ned Bennett's production is on a traverse stage—with the audience on two opposing sides—in a spare but effective design by Georgia Lowe.
The production follows the modern trend of having a movement director to choreograph some passing-of-time movement between scenes; as is usually the case, they add to the running time but not to the narrative so serve little purpose.
While the situation and the initial storyline appear very familiar, Jordan throws in enough twists to make this more interesting than might be expected from the publicity, plus she has a great ear for dialogue as well.
She has been impressing audiences in Edinburgh and London recently, and now her Manchester debut is certainly worth seeing for Manchester audiences.
Reviewer: David Chadderton