Correspondence @ Old Red Lion Theatre

The situation in the Middle East is something which is covered in the news very frequently, and Syria is often the topic of conversation. It’s therefore fitting to see a show about the Arab Spring making a home at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Lucinda Burnett’s Correspondence aims to look at the conflict, and alongside it talk about mental health, but unfortunately loses momentum halfway through.

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Photo: Richard Lakos

The play, set in 2011, follows 16 year old Ben (Joe Attewell), from Stockport who is looking for a big news story to put in his school paper. His Xbox is where he can get away from his parents who are going through a divorce, and this is where he can connect with his friend Jibreel (Ali Ariaie) from Syria and play games. When Ben doesn’t hear from Jibreel for a few days, he becomes very worried about his friend, especially with the troubles happening in Damascus, and decides he must go and find out what has happened to Jibreel. School bully Harriet (Jill McAusland) tags along, and both head to Syria. What they find, however, becomes very distressing for Ben, which ultimately affects his mental health.

There are elements of this play that help carry it through to the end. The acting is superb. Attewell is brilliant as Ben, presenting the audience with a convincing teenage boy who is clearly different from his peers. McAusland’s gobby Harriet is obnoxious in the beginning of the play, but we warm to her as we see how she cares for her new friend Ben. Ariaie’s Jibreel is also great, and brings to life his character well. The scenes between Jibreel and Ben were a personal favourite. Burnett’s language in these scenes is realistically teenage, and they burst with comedy. It’s fun to watch the two engage over their Xbox, even though they are from two very different walks of life.

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Photo: Richard Lakos

However some aspects of this performance did not entirely live up to expectations. The themes of the play not only includes the Arab Spring, but attempts to discuss mental health, problems facing children whose parents go through divorce, and bullying. But trying to fit all these issues into a 90 minute play does take its toll. Ben’s mental health problems don’t become very clear until he has an episode while in Syria near the end of the play. Burnett wants to explore a range of things in her play, and in doing so fails to hone in on any of them. Consequently the ending feels rushed and doesn’t conclude anything in any clear way.

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Photo: Richard Lakos

The aspects of this play that are worth watching are the way the technological elements are weaved into it through lighting and set design, created by Christopher Nairne and Bethany Wells respectively. The centre set-piece is a giant white circle, used to connote Ben’s bedroom and a bus stop, amongst other things. The flashing LED lights bring to the small Old Red Lion space a refreshing and up-to-date feel, and make the scene changes interesting to watch.

The performances in Correspondence is what makes this play engaging, alongside the interesting design. Aside from that, Burnett’s play fails to reach it’s full potential and disappoints with its rushed ending. This is very unfortunate as the subjects examined are very thought-provoking, and would make a fascinating piece, if explored correctly.

Transports @The Pleasance

Cornwall-based theatre company Pipeline Theatre are back at the The Pleasance with a revival of their debut production Transports. Set in the 1970s, the play explores the theme of displacement through the characters Lotta, a German immigrant who arrived in England on the Kindertransport during the Second World War, and Dinah, a volatile teenager who has moved from one foster home to the next. Although the company explore a very troubling subject, the humorous aspects of the play allow it to be a very thought provoking, yet entertaining piece of work.

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On initial meeting, Lotta (Juliet Welch) and Dinah (Hannah Stephens) seem very different from each other: Lotta likes to listen to the radio and dust her ceramic kittens, while Dinah would rather smoke cigarettes and read about murder and sex. But as the narrative continues, and the action switches between the 70s and late 30s, parallels begin to appear between the two. Just as they begin to communicate, something shocking happens which changes everything, especially the relationship that was starting to develop between them.

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Both performers are spectacular on stage. Welch is loveable as Lotta, desperately trying to take care of Dinah, but also fighting with the memory of her own past. She switches effortlessly between characters, as she also plays young Lotta’s carer Mrs Weston. Equally, Stephens is a force on stage, triumphantly portraying Dinah’s troubled character, but also allowing the audience to see a very vulnerable side to her, which is again reflected in her portrayal of the young Lotta.

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The theme of displacement is constantly present throughout the play, and writer and director Jon Welch weaves it brilliantly into the text, as well as use video projections to present old memories. This theme is reflected in particular with the imagery created by the set, designed by Alan and Jude Munden. Two rail tracks stand upright in the middle of the stage while the action is played out around them, and at various points during the performance a pair of bus seats is brought to the stage. There are constant indications of journeys, especially through objects as well, such as Lotta’s bag which is always on stage. The displacement continues when the action switches between 1970, to the late 1930s, when we see the young Lotta adjusting to her new life in England. The switch between the two time frames is smooth, but the constant switching can become jarring, evoking the characters’ frustrations and feelings. Like the action on stage, their lives are thrown from one place to another because of the very unfortunate circumstances they were both forced into. The combination of the set with the writing and great performances allows these emotions to be reflected effortlessly, making the play extremely engaging.

For a play which primarily focuses on the affects of displacement, Welch’s play does not feel displaced at all, especially within the current refugee crisis. It is mentioned at the curtain call that Pipeline are actually raising money for The Good Chance Calais, which is the theatre space based in the Jungle. The spectacular set design and beautiful writing makes Transports an extremely thought-provoking play, and the terrific performances bring this an energy that makes it an excellent piece of theatre.