Tag Archives: Thomas Coombes

“A Kind of People” at the Royal Court

Set around a group of former school friends, this stimulating new play has a tender romance at its core. Intelligently written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and confidently directed by Michael Buffong, the piece is a slice-of-life polemic of considerable dramatic power.

A long-devoted couple, Gary and Nicky, are working-class heroes the like of which are still too seldom seen on stage. Their struggles highlight issues around race and class in contemporary urban Britain. The toll taken by prejudice has a profound personal impact on the lovers and the questions raised are important.

Amy Morgan in "A Kind of People" at the Royal Court
Amy Morgan

You might argue that Gary’s objectionable white boss, Victoria, whom Bhatti uses as her starting point for looking at racism, is too much of a straw figure. Not because people don’t hold such views – or that Amy Morgan is at all lacking in the role – it’s just that most people hide their prejudice better. But, following scenes that ignite the audience against Victoria, there’s the suggestion that, when accused of racism, the character uses her sex as a defence: a bold move by Bhatti that makes the atmosphere in the theatre electric. 

Manjinder Virk in "A Kind of People" at the Royal Court
Manjinder Virk

It’s clear how smart – and provocative – this writing is. A second incident of prejudice comes from a Muslim mouth. Focusing on class, taking in the metropolitan obsession about schools, it is Anjum, a likeable Muslim mother, who uses that loaded phrase “people like you” against her white friend Nicky. The moment is made all the more shocking by the fact that this is a character, with a performance expertly crafted by Manjinder Virk, who has made us laugh and whom we admire.

Petra Letang in "A Kind of People" at the Royal Court
Petra Letang

Although each of the wonderfully observed characters we meet provides a take on race or class, Bhatti’s skill makes sure none of them feels like a device from a playwright. There is considerable nuance in A Kind of People, and it reflects complex lives and problems. There are strong performances too from Thomas Coombes, Asif Kahn and especially Petra Letang, whose character Karen injects a fantastic no-nonsense humour. But the play belongs to its central roles, which are developed superbly. Gary has a troubled emotional journey, becoming a man “drowning in anger”, plotted by Richie Campbell with impressive understatement. Claire-Louise Cordwell’s depiction of Nicky follows a different trajectory – she is a rock that crumbles with frightening suddenness in a performance that does justice to the blunt force contained within this sophisticated play.

Until 18 January 2020


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Plastic” at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Plays with verse can divide an audience but, when written as well as this sound piece by Kenneth Emson, they can command attention and respect. Starting with the poetry of football, this new piece develops from a slightly dull, if sensitive, inspection of playground politics and young love into a powerful drama of teenage psychopathy. Emson doesn’t have much new to say about his subject matter – school can be tough and, increasingly, violent – but he does write about it all very effectively.

Aided by Josh Roche’s tight direction and four strong performances, Plastic is a powerful look at toxic masculinity and a twisty thriller. There’s a love story that confounds expectations, well performed by Mark Weinman as a former schoolboy football star, and Madison Clare as his younger girlfriend, Lisa. The only woman in the piece, Clare deserves special credit for bringing as much complexity to her character as possible. Another couple are best mates Jack and Ben, whose unpopularity at school leads to homophobic bullying and the play’s disturbing finale. Again, the outcome is surprising and both Louis Greatorix and Thomas Coombes, who take the parts, are sympathetic and scary by turns and engagingly believable.

Obsessed with pivotal events, the play looks at the moments that lives change and people become defined by their past. From the start we are looking back – note that only two characters wear school uniforms, and there’s some meta-theatricality as recall becomes contested, especially around Lisa, who is the community’s “dark secret”. But going to and fro in time, in one instance to an imagined future, becomes confusing. It doesn’t help that much dialogue seems addressed to one of designer Sophie Thomas’ admittedly stylish light bulbs. Stockists’ details please.

With his look at the young white working class, Emson treads a fine line – it’s clear we’re all supposed to go to college and make sure we don’t have kids too early. Condemning the “shitty little town” that is the play’s location needs substantiating, since presenting staying there as an unquestionable tragedy is overplayed. Thankfully, the emotional depth of the characters is satisfying and the plotting strong. Attention to detail and careful performances, leading to explosive violence superbly handled by Roche, make the conclusion of Plastic fantastic.

Until 21 April 2018


Photo by Mathew Foster

“Barbarians” at the former Central Saint Martins College

The Tooting Arts Club, a company that revels in having no permanent home, had enormous success last year with its staging of Sweeney Todd, first in a pie-and-mash shop and then next door to the Queen’s Theatre. Back in town, with Bill Buckhurst’s accomplished revival of Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of short plays, it has now taken over a former art school. It’s fair to say that the work – dealing with youth unemployment, football hooliganism and racial violence – hits harder than most West End fare.

Following Paul, Jan and Louis as they dabble in petty crime, before finding factory jobs and then going their separate ways, is pretty depressing. Keeffe injects a lot of humour, which the performers respond to eagerly, but the frustration and fear that fill their adolescence doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The plays may be 40 years old but, apart from some fun with a themed bar, they are sadly still relevant. These three may seem a little more naïve than teenagers today, but they’re probably just less well connected – the absence of mobile phones is noticeable.

Killing Time is the first one-act play. We get to know the boys in a relatively light-hearted way as they make trouble while on the dole. There’s a great use of the space as they sit with the audience and scamper around tables, along with some extremely offensive language. Josh Williams’ Louis engenders most sympathy. Having completed a course, he may be an expert on refrigeration, but he can master little else. Abide With Me is set outside the FA cup final, as the trio wait for tickets, predictably let down by an adult in their lives. Their search for belonging is palpable, whether as military cadets or football fans: “the best army there is,” says Thomas Coombes’ Paul in a performance that brims with aggression.

For the finale, In The City, we’ve moved from Lewisham, via Wembley to the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are older, although I hesitate to use the word grown up. Jan (Jake Davies) has become a soldier, whose terror at his imminent departure to Northern Ireland informs an impressive monologue. A chance encounter with Louis results in a senseless and disturbing attack – the threat of violence hangs over all three plays, and when it arrives it shocks to the core. There’s a lot to praise about Barbarians, not least three excellent performances, but this powerful and insightful show comes with a warning.

Until 7 November 2015


Photo by Cesare De Giglio