Tag Archives: Blanche McIntyre

“Playfight” from the Finborough Theatre

Julia Grogan’s provocative new drama is the exciting winner of the ETPEP Prize and has been given an online rehearsed reading that downright demands a full production soon. A startlingly bold coming-of-age story with very serious concerns (and extremely frank content), Playfight comes close to a jeremiad and must be any parents’ nightmare.

The play’s three school friends talk bluntly about sex, death, love and religion. There’s humour of a kind here, although deadpan responses are relied on too much. First loves and a deep desire to work out what is “normal” prove touching. And it’s never in doubt that the characters of Kiera, Zainab and Lucy are “full of promise”. That potential is a fact that makes the play extremly depressing.

As well as orgasms and excitement about the future, it is the issues Grogan highlights that dominate. And these are truly shocking. Alongside teenage troubles with faith and sexuality (we expect that, right?) relationships to sex are seriously skewed. The acceptance of hard-core pornography and violence is disturbing. “Shame, blame and guilt” don’t just belong to Lucy’s church. Self-harming, homophobia and alcoholic parents seem almost tacked on as a grim backdrop to everyday life – it is physical violence that destroys all three young lives.

The performers – Robyn Cara, Hannah Millward and Helen Monks – work wonders with their character’s emotional ups and downs. There’s no lack of drama, so the generally underplayed tone and tight control shown in Blanche McIntyre’s direction are essential. Extra credit, of course, comes from the fact that the performers are working in isolation. Even though the piece has plenty of scenes that are phone calls, it’s impossible not to imagine how much more effective it would be – let’s hope will be – on a stage.

Playfight isn’t perfect. A central motif of an oak tree is over-burdened metaphorically and an attempt at basing some metaphysical speculation around its age fails to convince (although I’d love to see what a set designer could add). The much-discussed small-town setting is too vague, so what impact this might have had on the characters gets lost. The powerful energy in the play escalates with such rapidity that conclusion lacks control. But maybe that was the intention? Grogan’s work left me uncomfortably breathless and a play this urgent, aiming to spark so much debate, deserves a wide audience.

Until 8 April 2021

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

“Hymn” from the Almeida Theatre

A sell-out show when streamed live, now available to watch as a recording, Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play is a family drama with shocks and surprises. The story of two brothers, who only met at their father’s funeral, Hymn supplies brilliant highs and lows as we get to know two wonderful characters, masterfully performed.

Adrian Lester plays Gil and Danny Sapani is Benny. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, both performances are marked by a naturalism that is clearly Chakrabarti’s aim. A cautious first meeting, blossoming friendship, and the excitement of starting a business together are all handled without feeling contrived. Seeing the two men get to know one another proves joyous.

The solid script and McIntyre’s light touch mean that ‘issues’ of masculinity, race, age and class never feel forced. Passions and prejudices are part of the everyday lives we see here – providing a sense of modesty to the play’s aims. The piece is more convincing and moving as a result. An extended family, particularly Benny’s mother, as well as the men’s dead father, are all vividly conjured. Even a waitress we never see leaves an impression. It’s all good stuff – easy to recommend.

Danny Sapani in Hymn at the Almeida Theatre

Get ready for a plot spoiler

Because Hymn does not end happily, you might allege that Gil and Benny’s troubles are too well hidden for the dramatic finale – although we know one struggles with alcohol and the other describes himself as “the shooter of blanks” since his businesses always go bust. Plans and lives implode quickly, changing from one scene to another. Clearly that is Chakrabarti’s point – as Benny observes – life is “built on straw”.

It’s to the credit of both play and performers that a death at the end is so upsetting. You really want Gil and Benny’s lives to work out. Having seen how much fun they can have (preparations for a 50th birthday party are a blast) and how much support they can offer one another, things really should be fine. If we feel a little cheated, and want happy endings a little more than usual at the moment, there’s no doubt as to the power of a play that deserves songs of praise.

Until 9 March 2021

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner