Tag Archives: Joseph Rowe

“My One True Friend” at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Set in the 1970s, in what was then Rhodesia, Alexander Matthews’ play is both a family drama and a piece about racism. The style of writing is interesting, and the performances are good. Unfortunately, My One True Friend falls short dramatically.

There isn’t enough tension in the play. It’s understandable that director Antony Law uses voiceovers in scenes about the country’s dangerous curfews. But while this action may work on the page it fails on stage. Instead we’ve a warring family, led by a matriarch called Lady L, whose problems aren’t clear. And a dilemma, of sorts, for long-suffering servant Kapenie. In both cases, the characters are too poorly developed. Kapenie is a saintly figure, described as “serene”, which is exactly what Mensah Bediako, who takes the role, delivers. Meanwhile, Lady L’s lament that she has become “just an old woman with a sharp tongue”, ignoring her awful racism, is painfully close to the truth. Like Bediako, Suzanna Hamilton makes the part watchable. Both performers add some dynamism, but neither is given much to work with.

Lucy Lowe, Theo Bamber and Suzanna Hamilton
Lucy Lowe, Theo Bamber and Suzanna Hamilton

Instead of plot or character, it is language that interests Matthews and here he offers plenty. That’s not just a reference to how verbose the text is. Alongside plenty of philosophical buzzwords, characters speak about the structure of their argument as they go, explaining their rhetorical strategy with a mix of logic and psychology. The result is engaging, if a little odd.

It must be stressed that the delivery of this sometimes overwhelming verbiage is good. Theo Bamber and Lucy Lowe, as Lady L’s children, have a petulant edge and turn their arguments into dangerous games. More seriously, in outlining his persuasive techniques to get his grandfather to emigrate to America with him, Joseph Rowe makes his role feel urgent and his character inspiring.

The text is wonderfully detailed and clear to a fault; Matthews fights against nuance with a compulsion. And the technique provides genuine insight. But the tone is dry and demands a lot from an audience. It doesn’t have to be like this: the scene of Lady L’s birthday party, with the help of a little punch, is potentially funny (a PoMo take on a drawing room comedy?). It’s a shame Law didn’t pursue this variety. Ironically for a piece with so much talk, Matthews needs to give us more: in back stories for characters and historic information about what’s going on outside the house. Epitomising the problem is a horribly truncated finale – almost a bad joke, with no sense of resolution. We end up learning and feeling too little, with the sense of a play that needs to be a lot longer and say much more

Until 14 September 2019


Photos by Mark Senior

“Circa” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

As this is his first full-length play, it’s tempting to assume that Tom Ratcliffe is a young man. Regardless, his writing contains prodigious insight. There are so many intelligent observations in Circa that it might be thought of as a wise play, one that stays with you and makes you think. Following one man at three different life stages to explore the theme of loneliness, Ratcliffe seems capable of writing for any age, with dialogue that is consistently strong and often funny. Issues that could have hashtags and heavy debates about heteronormativity are delivered with ease. The neat conceit of covering three decades in its protagonist’s life is ultimately mishandled, and the play ends terribly but, with the aid of director Andrew Twyman, Circa is a particularly impressive failure.

As a young man, our hero encounters sexual violence. In his 30s he tries to settle down, no matter what the compromise. Then in later life he ends up dating online. All this is sensitively performed by Daniel Abelson, Thomas Flynn and Antony Gabriel. And they are ably supported by Joseph Rowe as two very different love interests. Twyman’s efforts to provide space for all this are admirable but there are too many issues touched on too quickly. While the play isn’t without surprises (which includes a fantastic role for the excellent Jenna Fincken), the tone is too insistently melancholic.

The biggest problem is also Ratcliffe’s boldest move – to take us strangely out of time and focus on characters. The isolated emphasis on emotional motivation in the play is sharp, but other considerations are too stripped back. It leads to confusion and a disappointingly hollow feel as a whole. There’s little background for our hero, more but not much for some of his sexual encounters. For all the time we spend with the guy, and the three performer’s efforts to make him appealing, the poor fellow doesn’t even get a name. It’s an interesting point of contrast – many plays with gay characters take obsessive care over the community’s history while here the past seems deliberately avoided. It makes Circa novel but, as the title indicates, it also makes positioning the play in time a frustrating, distracting difficulty. Ratcliffe could argue that it is not his focus – fair enough – but he contradicts himself; with a final scene set in the future in which the piece crashes to a conclusion. The idea that the problem of loneliness is getting (inevitably?) worse is sprung on us with surprising ineptitude. A piece that felt so personal flares out pointlessly and ends up insubstantial. It’s a shock when so much else about the play is admirable.

Until 30 March 2019


Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.