Andrew Broughton, C Nova, Calum Maclean, Death Penalty, Debbie Tucker Green's "Hang.", Edinburgh Fringe, Felix Mercier, Genetic Determinism, Jack Donoghue, Jessica Flood, Kim Christie, Luke Cullen, Noah Breuss-Burgess, Preventive Justice, Spasm Theatre, Spasm Theatre's "Grey Matter.", St Paul's School (London), Theatre Review, Tiannah Viechweg
This afternoon’s theatre takes us on a saunter into the near future. Both plays, “Grey Matter” and “Hang” are showing at C Nova. Neither is wildly dystopian, but both submit scenarios which are somewhat less liberal than you will find in our own times.
Spasm, the theatre company behind “Grey Matter,” is in fact a front for the London independent boys’ school St Paul’s. The production is unable to keep this under its hat for very long. There is an earnestness and a methodical rigour to the acting and writing which speaks of high school theatre, whilst the young boys-only cast is also a giveaway. You encounter these school productions from time to time at the Fringe and, as I have noted in the past, they always conduct themselves with a mixture of deception and bravado. The audiences would be no doubt smaller if the flyers openly admitted that this is the kind of the theatre which is normally imposed upon parents. On the other hand, it is admirable that these kids are going undercover to compete with the grownups.
The Tourette’s is another giveaway. The play is ninety minutes long, but if the word “fucking” was deleted from the script then it would last an hour. There is an element of overcompensation here – the effing and blinding is not a shortcut to adult theatre.
(Incidentally, a rival reviewer, Richard Beck, was so engrossed in this play that he spent most of it counting the f-words on his fingers. 150+ apparently.)
“Grey Matter” is set in a corrective facility which is itself not much of an imaginative leap from a boys’ school. St Paul’s claims that its script was devised by the cast and indeed it might well have been. We are a decade or so ahead and neurologists are running the world. All of the inmates are here because they have been screened for a neurological predisposition towards violence. Of course, you do not necessarily need a time machine to observe the horrors of preventive justice. In 2015 John O’Neill, a 45-year-old man who had been acquitted of rape at Teesside Crown Court was still judged to be so dangerous that he has to today notify the police every time that he has sex.
Yet “Grey Matter” most resembles – and the affinity is implied in its title – the BBC sitcom Porridge. There is no authentic sense of danger to any of the characters, and even the stroppy RIP (Jack Donoghue), who looks like he has been stranded on a desert island with a tattooist for a year, could be probably sorted out with a good cuddle. Even after near-fatal bullying, a murder, and a riot, there is something discernibly lamblike to the criminality.
Although the paternalistic authorities have mapped out everybody’s neural architecture, they have not factored free will into their calculations and so they are left helpless and dithering before the maelstrom. The prospective dystopia is thus being held back by its inappropriately liberal management. A demonic inmate, Jack (Calum Maclean) proves far more adept at manipulation than the shrinks, though even he is not totally scripting the plot.
Film clips which are projected on to dancing hospital screens needlessly prolong “Grey Matter.” The device of plumping a pool table into the heart of the play is nevertheless a good one. What better way is there of conveying dreary youth facilities than with a pool table? The fact that the balls are never clicking also symbolises the wasted potential of the inmates and the lack of brain stimulation which the state has prescribed for them. Despite details such as this, “Grey Matter” is largely content to whip up some melodrama without any serious philosophical chew beneath it.
A woman arrives for a meeting with two bureaucrats. The woman is played by Tiannah Viechweg and the bureaucrats by Jessica Flood and Kim Christie. How you respond to Debbie Tucker Green‘s “Hang” will depend literally upon whether you have read its blurb beforehand. I had, and so I knew that the woman has come to decide whether somebody who has done her wrong should be strung up. An audience member who has not read the blurb will have quite a mountain ahead of them, since the characters refuse to allude to the nature of this central decision until the play’s endgame. The time and place of the play’s setting are also never specified, though there are English accents and England does not have the death penalty. Henceforth we are either in an alternative-reality or a near-future England, and my trusty flyer reveals it to be the latter.
There is quite a song and dance, even for England, over making the tea and ensuring that the visitor is comfortable. The woman is intolerant of bureaucracy and so the checklists and procedures will wind her up good and proper.
I had assumed that the woman was a victim of rape, but she soon comes to berth in exactly the same stance as activists such as Doreen Lawrence and Denise Fergus. Both of these women’s sons were horrifically murdered and both mothers have since campaigned prolifically for illiberal legislative changes. Lawrence’s activism has led to the abolition of the “double jeopardy rule” whilst Fergus has called for the killers of her infant son, James Bulger, to be hanged. The media typically portrays officialdom and its “red tape” as being agonisingly estranged from the no-nonsense real-life suffering of these women. “Hang” gently and in its own way makes the case for red tape. Would a victim of the most devastating crime really, in the end, be driven to the extremes of revenge?
Although there is no detectable Christian twitch in this play, the whole artifice wobbles on that quintessential Biblical dilemma about forgiveness. Scenes in which the bureaucrats withdraw and the woman is left alone with a letter from her wrongdoer powerfully reveal the depths of her torment, the jostling around her ears of hell and redemption. Viechweg’s electric performance will always keep a lid on the play’s humour whilst most UK theatregoers will have experienced enough of bureaucracy by now to find the officials’ terminology realistic rather than ridiculous.
“I want him hung.” For over forty minutes, this play has avoided saying what it is actually about, and even when it finally does so, it makes an infamous schoolboy error. This is a powerful drama which will speak no evil, at least to the letter.