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.
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.
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.
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.