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.

Playground @ Old Red Lion Theatre

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.

Christopher James Barley as DC Birch

Christopher James Barley as DC Birch

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.

Josie Ayres and Richard Fish, Playground, Old Red Lion Theatre (c) Cameron S Harle

Josie Ayres as Carolyn and Richard Fish as Danny

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.

Laura Garnier as Tamsin

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.