Playground – Old Red Lion Theatre Islington – until 7th November

Playground – Old Red Lion Theatre 

★★★  

Guest Review by Sarah Tinsley

A darkly comic tale of tragedy set amid the parks of London, populated with misfits from all corners of British society. Peter Hamilton’s seventh Fringe play is worth a visit for its clever dialogue and occasional sparks of brilliant performance from its cast. We follow an investigation into a child murderer who is decapitating young children and leaving an Enid Blyton book on the bodies. Mitchell (Dan MacLane) and Birch (Christopher James Barley) are the first on the scene, apparently investigating the case, but the sordid undertones between them take up most of their energy and attention. The chemistry between them is the highlight of the play. MacLane’s expressions (his piercing eyes will stay with me) are confrontational and eerie; next to Barley’s playfully erotic portrayal of his sidekick, something sexually sadistic lurks between them.

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Photo (c) Cameron S Harle

Also hanging around the park are various dropouts from ‘normal’ society. Two young teenagers from the local psychiatric hospital, an old inmate (now a cleaner) from the same place who struggles with mental illness, and a random woman who wanders in, wanting to throw herself in the canal. So far, so cheery. What’s impressive is that through the edgy script, we’re encouraged to mock our own prejudices and suppositions, with characters from the highest to the lowest social class, no area of society is safe from the taunts of Hamilton. Also on the agenda are the failings of the mental health system in the UK and the dearth of opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged to claw their way out of poverty.

The characters meet and try, in their fumbling way, to create human connections through the creation of an improbable book club in the same parks the murders are taking place. The dialogue is mostly well-delivered, although none of the actors were able to pull off the ‘accidental’ slip of the tongue, it always came out as an intended line, which was a shame.

 

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Photo (c) Cameron S Harle

The fantastical and squeaky-clean world of The famous Five acts as a foil to squalor and desperation of these characters, eager to find solace with each other. This is highlighted by the huge murals of book covers in the background (Susie Hamilton) and the ‘playground’ set of a scaffold and a tiny picnic bench on which the characters squat uncomfortably, replicating their inability to engage comfortably with those around them. Over it all, a hacksaw dangles, an ominous juxtaposition to the bright colours and fake grass.

Of our misfits, the role of Danny (Richard Fish) is notable. He gets most of the best lines; being mentally distant from society, he is able to comment on it in a way the others cannot, and he has a fragile vulnerability in his overalls and lanyard which is touching. Although his vocabulary and intelligence exceeded the role he was supposed to be playing, Stuart (Simon Every) was the most relatable and sympathetic performance, with his minute hand gestures and tics capturing the sense of a man uncomfortable in his own skin. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his female counterpart, Tamsin (Laura Garnier). Perhaps difficult to pull off as she largely speaks in middle-class clichés, but she lacked the conviction of the other parts. In no way a reflection of acting, I’m not entirely sure what Carolyn (Josie Ayres) was doing on the stage. Other than providing a ‘love’ interest for Danny, she didn’t really bring anything to the play or its ideas. Perhaps she was supposed to act as a mother hen to the rest, but I didn’t really feel that was necessary. The portrayal of a neurotic middle-class woman was excellent, however redundant she felt as a character. The lilting voice of Bella (Sarah Quist) took us through the scene changes, which was a nice touch, and she endearingly  played the only ‘normal’ role, although there wasn’t much for her to do.

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The second act was much more pacy and well-delivered, incredibly funny and moving. There were often quite long pauses to allow for the laughter to die away, which is always the sign of a well written script that has been delivered with great timing. The direction of Ken McClymont kept our characters together yet separate, which visually isolated them from each other all the more.

It’s just such a shame about the ending. Perhaps Hamilton is making a wry statement about happy endings, or being ironic, but the highly staged ‘this is what happened next’ came off as trite and a pro-capitalist, and just didn’t fit with the rest of the play. The clever weaving of the story, the characters and their relationships was more than enough to leave the audience to their own suppositions. I would much rather have extrapolated imagined futures for these engaging characters than been told it in a flat monotone. A strong performance from most of the cast in a harsh yet funny examination of London’s darker side, and how it feels to be on the other side of the high walls of Islington.

Playground – Old Red Lion Theatre 

★★★  

Guest Review by Sarah Tinsley

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