Tag Archives: Natalie Johnson

“Bacon” at the Finborough Theatre

Teen dramas are two a penny. Young lives have plenty of problems, ample angst and content that, as the saying goes, is relatable. A playwright needs to up to the ante with this subject matter. And that’s exactly what Sophie Swithinbank does with her powerful and smart script.

Swithinbank takes us on a journey with her characters Mark and Darren that is carefully plotted. The writing, full of strong yet understated imagery, is admirable. But praise does come with spoilers…


I’ll admit I was fooled at first. The odd friendship with clean-cut new boy Mark and his rough friend Darren has charm and effective (if predictable) humour. There are laughs about the aloofness of one and the ignorant swagger of the other. It seems that Swithinbank will treat their very different problems equally.

In a bold move, the tone of Bacon changes quickly. The teens’ burgeoning relationship, told in flashbacks, reveals not the romance Mark wants but trauma. The play becomes disturbing as the relationship becomes emotionally and physically damaging.

Think of a topic that gets a trigger warning and it’s here: suicidal ideation, self-harm, domestic and sexual abuse. Could  some have been avoided and others given more time? But there’s no doubt the cumulative effect is dramatic. Some scenes are difficult to watch as Swithinbank explores how lost and lonely these young men are. It’s depressing how incapable they are of understanding, let alone expressing, feelings.


The production rises to the challenge of Swithinbank’s ambition. Matthew Iliffe’s direction is faultless, flipping between relaxed and tense moments. The design by Natalie Johnson consists of a simple see-saw used to great effect: reminding us we are watching children and reflecting instability. Further praise goes to top-notch lighting and sound design (Ryan Joseph Stafford and Mwen) each used dramatically at key moments without being distracting.

As for the performances, two such intense and dynamic roles are gifts to actors. Both Corey Montague-Sholay and William Robinson are flawless, with have a strong command of the comedy (balancing how the audience might laugh at, rather than with, the characters). Montague-Sholay brings out Mark’s charm, Robinson does the same with Darren’s vulnerability, ensuring remarkable sympathy. When violence arrives, we see the characters sharing shock and pain. Strong performances and a daring play make this an easy one to recommend.

Until 26 March 2022


Photos by Ali Wright

“The Rage of Narcissus” at the Pleasance Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is described as auto-fiction. It features events and conversation that may or may not be true. The author is presented as a character – an invention – and the actor introduces himself, thereby highlighting a second fiction. The result is a mind-bending piece that’s heavy with theory but gripping nonetheless – a very special combination of erudition and theatre that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

The strategy, relentlessly playing with the line between fiction and fact – what Blanco may have done and what he has certainly made up – is complicated and not to all tastes. It’s stimulating, puzzling and profound all at once, but it isn’t easy. It’s down to director and translator Daniel Goldman and the sole performer, Sam Crane, to aid comprehension – which they do brilliantly.

Sam Crane in 'The Rage of Narcissus' by Sergio Blanco at the Pleasance Theatre

Yet, in keeping with the play’s remit, Goldman and Crane never miss a chance to enforce theatre’s artificiality: designer Natalie Johnson’s set is mirrored, and the lighting by Richard Williamson takes a dominant role. The audience is destabilised and left continually questioning.

Things only get tougher when it comes to the ideas in the play. At its centre is a lecture about Narcissus that takes us to big questions about ‘art’ with blunt directness. Blanco’s is not a reading list I could keep up with, Derrida and Heidegger are thrown in casually. I wonder if André Gide would be a good one to mention: his treatise on Narcissus includes the idea that gazing at one’s reflection means losing oneself as a result. Which is, maybe, what happens next.

The Rage of Narcissus is more than a metaphysical mystery story, though. Inspired by bloodspots on a hotel room carpet, and a casual sexual partner who becomes obsessed, we get a ‘real’ murder story, too, that’s also of startling originality. It’s not just storytelling that Blanco wants dissecting. Alongside all the theory there are proper goosebumps.

The text has a forensic quality. Crane coldly narrates horrific events and then passionate encounters. A question arises as to the humour that follows. Crane slips into a cheekiness, accompanied by distinctly British giggles from the audience, that jar with Blanco’s frankness. For in tandem with the precision of the writing there’s a visceral quality that engages with all those cerebral concerns. If you think myth and murder is a potent combination, throw in sex and danger, too.

Blanco’s self-reflexive writing is likened to a Möbius strip or Escher drawing on stage. Fair enough, and helpful. But the description of a sex party attended towards the play’s finale struck me more forcefully: “The idea was to keep things moving. To try new things. To mix and combine…”. That could be a description of both the script’s virtues and its excesses. It’s to Goldman and Crane’s credit that all of this is brought out so vividly. Blanco has written an orgy of a text and this production knows better than to try and tame it.

Until 8 March 2020


Photos by Ali Wright