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Theatre Reviews

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OCTAGON
Arcola
Rating:***

Welcome to the world of American performance poetry, and a verbal cornucopia that has ‘message’ writ large in every line and where protest is a whisker away from personal pain and tragedy. Writer Kristiana Rae Colón describes herself as ‘a poet, playwright, actor and educator’ and all four facets are highly visible in this wrangling, gut-wrenching exploration of the competitive spirit. She doesn’t actually appear herself as a performer, but her sense of showmanship imbues every scene.

In Octagon, a national poetry slam is the framework and we see the build-up, the battle to find the final member of the team, and the tangle of relationships between seven participants and the Watcher Named Pen, who ironically describes herself as “the bar bitch with access to a mic… the show host with tits”.

One of the poets, Prism, also happens to like rough sex, especially involving erotic asphyxiation, and she practises this with both her current lover, Tide, and the victorious newcomer to the slam team, Atticus, a man “from nowhere”. The play therefore explores themes of self-destruction alongside salvation. It exerts its dramatic grip only slowly and for much of the play the narrative is obscured by the writer’s obsession with language as a weapon.

There is no doubting the skill of the performers, and the dexterity of director Nadia Latif, who weaves a kind of magic out of the relentless barrage of words, but after two and three-quarter hours one is left beaten into submission, and wishing that the writer had taken her own advice in the character of Chimney, a ‘winner’, who urges Palace, a ‘dreamer’, to trim his poem to a more suitable length.

The main difficulty is that the poetry, supposedly from seven different voices, not only begins to adopt the same tone, the same rhythm, the same abrasive, quickfire delivery whoever is speaking, but that when the characters are simply having a conversation, their language is similarly heightened, as if they can’t help but speak in striking images and semi-rhymes. This gives the play a self-conscious quality that may have been intended but it lowers the dramatic temperature.

That said, the cast have precision, energy, conviction and huge aplomb. Lara Rossi as Prism, Solomon Israel as Chimney, Asan N’Jie as Palace, Leemore Marrett Jr as Tide, Martins Imhangbe as Atticus, Harry Jardine as Chad, Crystal Condie as Jericho and Estella Daniels as the Watcher Named Pen create a whirlwind ensemble performance, but there is an earnestness about the whole evening that bogs it down just when it should be moving forward.

At one point, Palace says “I want to write happy poems. Is that a thing? Joy poems? Do poets get to be happy?” One could have wished for a little more lightness of touch such as this.

EARLY DAYS
Finborough Theatre
Rating: ***

Written in 1974, but not performed until 1980, David Storey’s ‘’Early Days’’ eschews both the macho world of rugby league – as seen in his novel ‘’This Sporting Life’’ and his play ‘’The Changing Room’’ – and the social realism of marquee erection and dismantling (‘’The Contractor’’), and concentrates instead on an elderly man’s fragile state of mind.

For Sir Richard Kitchen life was once full of certainties. His career took him to the heart of things. He was, quite possibly, a cabinet minister, but nothing is clear any longer, except random memories of his childhood. His wife, whom he often feels is still alive, kept everything in perspective for him, and he was accustomed to being respected, and in control.

He is now watched over by a hired former soldier (Max Gold), a bullying son-in-law (Andrew MacDonald) and a daughter (Abigail Bond) who can barely keep her exasperation at bay. He can no longer make sense of what he is, or was, and engages in mental duels with those around him. But he can’t keep it up for long, and relapses into rueful silences. It is a poignant study of psychological decline, and the ways in which one’s nearest and dearest come to express their affection through hostility rather than kindness.

There is a more than a hint of comparison with Pinter’s ‘’No Man’s Land’’, also written in 1974, in which an older, establishment figure is protected/imprisoned by two mysterious servants. There is a similar sense of unease underlying everything, and of deep symbolism in the sparse physical surroundings, though in the case of Sir Richard Kitchen, it is a bleak garden patio rather than a gloomy mansion.

Kitchen passes the time by making little speeches to himself. “Speeches are my fate. I shall come to your factory and make a speech”, he declares to his son-in-law. He still has a wry sense of humour, though he is not certain of its purpose. He observes everyone else strutting about, going from A to B, as if going from A to B is exactly what they planned to do. He is bemused by their confidence and their sense of dogged intent.

This is therefore one hell of a part, and requires a subtly nuanced, wistful, mischievous, quicksilver performance if the play is to get up off its knees and engage us as it should. Simon Molloy makes a brave stab at it, but doesn’t have the full armoury at his disposal. He is watchful and bantering by turns, but doesn’t get to the heart of a once eminent man foiled, finally, by his own failing memory and the loss of a wife he mistreated and drove into the arms of another.

This is an elegiac play, and a quietly touching portrayal of the bafflement of old age. It is directed by Tim Newns in celebration of Storey’s 80th birthday (on 13 July) and it is a worthy tribute. But on this showing it falls short of its full emotional impact.


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