Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: John Roberts
Simon Stephen’s has produced some of the most hard hitting theatre of recent years to much critical acclaim and his latest production which is being presented in a co-production between The Royal Exchange and Lyric Hammersmith (where Stephen’s is an associate artist) is nothing short of theatrical brilliance.
Based in a sixth form Library in an Independent School in Stockport, we encounter several students who battle with the institutionalised ways of the school, but also more importantly we face and explore the battle that rages within each of them searching for their own identity and recognising their place in a society that sends out 100’s of mixed messages about who we should be on a daily basis. Stephen’s writing is sharp, and fast paced, full of witty one liner’s that are suddenly followed by painful soul searching moments the next. The Dialogue flows with a natural eloquence and beauty and never feels convoluted or forced.
Although the play has been redesigned and restaged to allow the show to go from an end on production at the Lyric to the round here in Manchester, one gets the feeling that nothing has been lost and the stylised set of floating books and plastic chairs (designed by Paul Wills) sets the scene perfectly, never detracting from the action and the unfolding narrative.
Sarah Frankcom’s direction is slick, but her strength lies in bringing out the subtext in moments of silence, glaring looks of lust or hatred bumping the tension within the piece to an uncomfortable knife edge, where you are never quite certain as to what the outcome or the reaction is going to be. The cast are universally outstanding and handle the text with an ease and passion that you quite often see missing in action in other productions, something which they should be highly praised for considering for most this is their professional debut or second professional engagement.
Tom Sturridge fresh from playing the young lead in hit film ‘The Boat That Rocked’ plays William Carlisle the emotionally affected student to great effect, combining sensitively his shy and coy nature, but bringing out an air of real angst throughout. Katie West as Tanya nails the northern accent to a tea, (which is something that the rest of the cast could really spend some extra time on.) Her performance as the most instantly likable character is one of real warmth, never tipping the balance from likeable to irritating which is so easily done.
Sophie Wu provides us with one of the hardest characters to get right, the student who is clearly in love with herself, the dedicated fashion follower who will do things her way, but also has a clear issue with self-identity. Wu handles the role with a unique originality which throws an interesting curve ball into the usual mix of the middle class students. Harry McEntire is perfectly cast as the awkward socially inept pupil Chadwick Meade and Nicholas Banks as love interest Nicholas is toned to perfection and definetly had the girls near to me swooning every time he was on stage.
Henry Lloyd-Huges as antagonistic bully Bennett is in fine frame, bringing a needed powerful figure into the mix, which is instantly dislikeable, but a performance that is brilliant at captivating and holding the audience’s attention throughout. But for this reviewer it is the performance of Jessica Raine as Lilly that provides one of the best performances I have seen all year. Raine’s performance is truly understated and it is through this performance that one see’s the true understanding of the characters emotions and feelings – most defiantly a name to watch out for.
All in all, this is one of the best new pieces of writing I have seen in a very long time. Stephens’ unique way of being able to rip apart and question our society in a way that is not only painful but shockingly beautiful is a rare gift and one hopes many more plays come out of this new powerhouse of script writing.
Photos: Jonathan Keenen
Runs until Sat 31st Oct