Enid Blyton’s books may have been the inspiration for Playground, but luckily knowledge of the Famous Five is not necessary for enjoying this play. The underlying mystery is really just a way for writer Peter Hamilton to use a set of characters to explore social problems. The play discusses mental health, perceptions of individuals in society, and the idea of community. This does sound too heavy for a night out at the pub, but the dark comedy employed by the writer allows these subjects to be looked at successfully.
Playground is set in Victoria Park, where murders have taken place. The victims, all children, have been decapitated, and the murderer has left a Famous Five book on each of the bodies. Detectives Mitchell and Birch (played by Dan MacLane and Christopher James Barley respectively) are in charge of solving the case, and in this process, the audience meets five characters who could potentially have carried out the killings. Walthamstow lad Stuart (Simon Every), and posh communist Tamsin (Laura Garnier) know each other from Bow Road Psychiatric Unit, and visit the park frequently. So does Danny (Richard Fish), a former psychiatric patient and current night cleaner at Canary Wharf, and Carolyn (Josie Ayers), who he saves from an attempted suicide. Then there’s Bella (Sarah Quist), who runs the cafe at the park, and is dishonest about her past. When Danny decides to form a book club inviting everyone to join, his choice of books to read might hold a clue to who amongst the group is the murderer.
Fish is brilliant as Danny and presents his strangeness with likeability, making him an eerie yet endearing character. Barkey’s cross-dressing Birch is hilarious, and the relationship between him and MacLane’s Mitchell is never really fully disclosed, which I really liked. It allows for the audience to make up their own mind about what they are seeing. Garnier’s character Tamsin became quite grating after a while, and I found myself rolling my eyes every time she spoke in the second half of the play. I could have done with less talk of “revolution”, and more talk of racial tensions, which Hamilton very briefly touches on with the character Stuart, who we find out was amongst an EDL protest once. There was scope to expand on this I think, especially as the play is set in East London, but fails to include more than one BAME actor on stage.
The set is interesting on first observation. Director and designer Ken McClymont has used scaffolding to create a climbing frame, complete with an old tyre swig. The structure forefronts the large Enid Blyton book covers surrounding it, so the audience are constantly reminded of the mystery unfolding. Juxtaposing the darkness of the content with the brightly coloured covers does highlight the grossness of the murdered children, which is also emphasised by Quist’s Bella repeatedly singing the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. She has a beautiful voice so I loved every time she appeared in the shadows.
The characters are interesting, and the play is dark and hilarious, which is what makes it so entertaining. In terms of a conclusion? I have no idea, but what I do know is it was an enjoyable evening of theatre which I would recommend.