Plumber-turned-playwright Laurence Lynch’s debut play, Burnt Oak: Life and Death in London Town, is a sharply written drama, which though it often sticks to relatively tired theatrical conventions, announces the arrival of a promising talent. Lynch, who used to do the plumbing for the very theatre in which his play premieres, has written an account of working class London life based largely on his own childhood experiences in North London, including the titular Burnt Oak.
Nobby, played by Louis Cardona, is an orphan, who after being told by his school’s careers advisor that his ambition of becoming a painter and decorator was ‘aiming high’, has nonetheless managed, through charisma alone, to secure an apprenticeship in the field. His charm also stands him in good stead with the ladies; he finds himself spending a night at trainee hairdresser Susan’s house, and meets her ill-tempered dad George and selfless but simple mum Margaret when he awakes on the sofa the next morning. The one-night-stand quickly turns into a serious relationship, and Susan’s parents begin to warm to their daughter’s new boyfriend.
All seems to be going well for the young couple, but a series of unanticipated events puts a strain on their relationship, eventually making Nobby persona-non-grata to Susan and her family. As he struggles to reign in his alcoholism and face up to his responsibilities, Nobby’s dreams are slowly shattered and his ambitions quashed. The lives of the play’s other characters begin to similarly disintegrate, as the cold hand of fate sours their respective hopes of a brighter future.
Nothing about the plot is remarkably original and the play becomes increasingly predictable as it goes along, but it is saved by Lynch’s terse and absorbing dialogue. Some of the interchanges between George and his long-suffering wife Margaret bring to mind the trademark style of playwright David Mamet: ‘Mametspeak’. The constantly engaging conversation also insures that there are few, if any, longueurs in the play, and the narrative rattles along on at a thrillingly brisk pace.
The autobiographical nature of the play allows Lynch to write characters that are surprisingly convincing, with a rawness rarely found in more orthodox dramas. The narrative is peppered with local anecdotes that add to its sense of authenticity, such as a to-and-fro over the Arsenal and Tottenham football rivalry. The continuously humorous cockney vernacular is never distracting, and adds a welcome comic aspect to a play which becomes progressively more harrowing.
The production benefits from being staged in the intimate Lounge Theatre at Leicester Square, which is really no more than a medium-sized room, and brings a fly on the wall quality to scenes set in claustrophobic houses and apartments. The ensemble cast make the most of the compact space with Jason Wing, who plays the pugnacious ex-criminal George, giving a powerful and often genuinely terrifying performance.
Dan Maclane also stands out as Nobby’s colleague and confidant Terry; his pleasing cockney rhythms and carefully crafted wisecracks account for many of the play’s lighter moments. Donna Combe manages to portray the helplessness of a working class housewife with admirable nuance.
There are moments in the play that come close to matching the work of seasoned playwrights, and despite the conservative nature of the narrative, it is captivating throughout. Lynch’s talents as a dramatic writer are perhaps slightly eclipsed by his comic abilities, and the play often lacks artistic bite, but as a first play, Burnt Oak, is a very respectable effort.