Correspondence – Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd April

Correspondence  – Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd April 

★★★★

Review by Sarah Tinsley 

A touching portrayal of a young boy’s slide into psychosis, set against the disintegration of Syria.

Ben is a teenager, spending an inordinate amount of time playing Xbox. While online, he meets Jibreel, a young Syrian boy, who opens Ben’s eyes to the wider world and inspires him to believe he could make a difference. Set in 2011, this play is a poignant reminder that boys like Jibreel were, not so long ago, just like teenagers in the UK. It’s understandable that the writer Lucinda Burnett chose this time to resurrect the script. How much can change in a few years, and how far those repercussions can spread. This nostalgia is littered throughout the play, with references to the Royal Wedding and pop culture.

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Photo Credit Richard Lakos

As Ben becomes more obsessed with his online imaginings, he finds himself drawn into a world he doesn’t understand, along with a fellow loner (Harriet) who has a lot more mouth. They embark on a dangerous journey that will lead to the unravelling of Ben’s delicate mental state, leaving his worried, recently divorced parents (Fran and David) behind to piece together his disappearance.

Congratulations must go to Bethany Wells, Christopher Nairne and Giles Thomas for the set, lighting and sound. Centre stage is a huge cylinder, lit with a sharp blue, reminiscent of an alien spacecraft. It is within this sphere that Ben hides himself from his parents. All the surrounding characters face the blank wall, as if are in ‘sleep mode.’ At their entrances and exits have ‘boing’ sounds – literally calling them into animation, as if they are in a computer game. Brilliant. Flashing lights run along the ceiling; accompanied by sounds that indicate the churning of the brain, the flicker of the internet or the flash of online violence. There’s no irony lost in the boys’ delight at the horror and carnage of a CGI war.

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Photo Credit Richard Lakos

While I appreciate a play that is willing to tackle mental health issues, the delivery of the key moment was a little off. The audience shifted noticeably, the fourth wall broken by the scene being too long and the acting too melodramatic. Other than that, the performances were fabulous. Joanna Croll as the harangued mother, permanently in bright yellow crocs, Mark Extance as the recently-divorced dad attempting to re-invent himself for his new lady. The brilliant interplay between these two characters was sincere and incredibly funny. Even Jill McAusland, who initially grated as too much of a stereotypical dumb female teenager, provided much of the humour and became an unlikely sympathetic role.

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Photo Credit Richard Lakos

Joe Attewell is a strangely silent central character. Huge chunks of time are taken up with him putting his shoes on. It allows the audience to resonate with him, but in a quiet way. Verbally, he doesn’t get much, but this nonchalance belies the churning of his mind beneath and makes him an intriguing character. Unfortunately, Ali Ariaie comes off as a little tokenistic in the narrative, and we only see his true feelings right at the end, which leaves it feeling a little unbalanced.

A thoughtful exploration of mental health in a fondly-remembered recent past.

Correspondence  – Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd April 

★★★★

Review by Sarah Tinsley

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