A dystopian doom rages outside a lonely man’s home throughout S.P.I.D. Theatre Company’s latest piece – but if anyone can be credited with successfully forging an alternative universe, it’s Anna Reid. So immersive is her design, that stepping into this venue’s secondary attic performance space seems like a property viewing in this vibrant Zone 2 location. On top of a worn carpet a table is set with a bottle of The Famous Grouse, together with a couple of glasses. Furnishing the homely scene with just the right implication of madness, The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist plays from a radio in the corner. Cake ingredients clutter the realist kitchen set-up, and three doors to off-stage imply a bathroom, a bedroom and the rioting world outside. On the assorted chairs and cushions that line the walls, audience members are invited to sit, the undimmed lighting reinforcing the site-specific feel of this production.
There’s a lot crammed into this artfully run-down council flat and Reid valiantly delivers a set that’s so well designed, it’s easy to mistake for a found space. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the way complex themes are handled in this quick burst of new writing, which sees Arthur’s World bite off significantly more than it can chew. Playwright/Artistic Director Helena Thompson sets off on an epic quest to combat the alienation of being deemed a “coconut” – that is, a black man who takes on stereotypically ‘white’ traits – alongside bereavement, loneliness, friendship, youth social unease, violence, alcoholism, depression, parenting, delusion, ambition, social class, the Marxist qualities of gaming, the deterioration of society, and medieval romance. Superficially, many comparisons can be made between this, and Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights (2008), as long-standing family turbulence and societal unease comes to a head in a setting destined to crumble. But that’s where the comparisons end. At 70 minutes, S.P.I.D.’s take on Thompson’s play is ultimately as flimsy as the walls of its set.
That’s not to say the acting is weak. In this tale of Arthurian legend appropriated for the digital age, Paul Greenwood, Enyi Okoronkwo and Joseph Tremain do well to portray sexagenarian Arthur, his wayward son Mikey and troublesome youth Kino, respectively. Filling the gap left by Mikey’s mysterious disappearance with alcohol and self-neglect, Arthur is speedily declining; Greenwood brings clout and sensitivity to this process through a textured inability to let go of his character’s past, popping and locking to the radio station he’s left on since Mikey’s departure, and reappropriating a sleazy Rudimental song to articulate his own longing for the past. Okoronkwo, armed with an earnest nervous smile, brings out the complexity of his misunderstood and otherworldly character. Tremain – who bursts onto the set with fake facial hair and one trouser leg held up, like Charlie Chaplin at a dance rehearsal – turns up the volume to maximum in his passionate depiction of the resourceful no-hoper that Mikey could’ve been, furnishing his stereotypical character with an unmistakable pathos.
Thompson’s play is peppered with a defiant self-awareness, and the writer nods to “all the worlds within worlds” in one of her many punchy one-liners. There’s promise in the comparison between the intimate ‘Arthur’s World’ that surrounds us, and the unseen war that rages outside, but the technical errors (a falling prop, a visible trapdoor and a missed lighting cue) indicate that it’s not just the audience that is struggling to keep up with the ambition of this production. Ultimately, what has the potential be a touching urban folk tale becomes clouded by the unrealised scope of the show. The riots outside, triggered by a computer game designed by Mikey, aren’t developed enough to work as a metaphor and rely too heavily on memories of 2011 to generate any great velocity. Given S.P.I.D.’s reputation as a company that sets out to ‘reinvent community theatre’, it’s a real shame that young people from the company’s Kensal House estate outreach programme are cast as the rioting offstage youths. This restrictive voice for urban youth, so cynical in its application, makes for a disappointing portrayal of estate life from a company apparently so grounded in the community.