Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 13 May 2014


Soho Theatre ⋄ 9th-25th May 2014


Devawn Wilkinson

What counts as your territory? Your home, your car, your wheelie bin? Do those parameters begin or end at your front door, on your slice of the pavement, or the street where you live? Alex (Philip McGinley) and Claire (Jenny Rainsford) have nearly got it perfect – they’ve bought a new flat in a ‘nice’ area courtesy of Alex’s inheritance, Claire’s just graduated as a doctor – yet all it takes is a series of tiny tears in the fabric of everyday things – a broken wing mirror, a minor yet aggressive confrontation with a stranger – assaults on territory that instigate a free-fall into classic suburban nightmare.

Yet a microcosm this isn’t – from the start, there’s the hinted sense that our protagonist is not entirely an everyman-pushed-to-the-limits. McGinley’s Alex has this nervy, plaintive energy to him, even a little too quick to distrust his new neighbour, the garrulous and ghastly Philip, (played to smug perfection by John Lightbody). Jenny Rainsford’s Claire is his anchor, but also somewhat underwritten – little more than a necessary counter-balance to Alex’s increasingly extreme behaviour.

The secondary characters are comparatively more compelling – our attention cleaving closely to Lightbody’s Philip, a rich and sometimes poignant comic creation, even if his ridiculousness renders him a send-up of that vitriolic, venomous right wing rhetoric rather than any realistic concern. Despite the best efforts of McGinley, Alex himself – caught up between believing the best and assuming the worst of people – ends up as a wincing, unheroic Josef K, well-suited to the Kafka-esque futility of his entertaining and difficult exchanges with the endearingly redundant local policeman (Christopher Brandon) but he also loses any sense of individual personality, becoming only a closed circuit of anguished, unanswerable questions.

Perhaps the play falters because the issues Hartley offers up for consideration – a divided society, right-wing extremity, home security – seem somewhat self-conscious and additional, vaguely at odds with Alex’s foregrounded psychological breakdown. These two threads jostle sometimes uncomfortably with each other. There’s the apparently real threat of those youths gathered below, angered by Alex’s initial dressing-down of one of their members, sending bricks through the window and worse through the letterbox – then there’s Alex’s slow, and vaguely unconvincing descent into a paranoid wreck – played for gentle reprimanding laughs before Hartley pulls us up short with a forceful, upsetting conclusion.

Alex’s aided and abetted in his sometimes understandable hysteria by Claire, Philip and the gently scene-stealing PC who, in a nice touch, has the comfortable habit of keeping his hands tucked into the pockets of his police vest as if reminding Alex he will never be able to really do anything. Idiosyncratic and off-beat, ordinary human interaction is expertly handled by Bruntwood-prize winning Hartley who is particularly perceptive in capturing the sweet strangeness of people, their moments of agreement and rupture, hilarity and repugnance. In some ways, it’s a comedy of manners boiling over into a gesture towards gritty social realism.

Of course, it isn’t gritty because, like the characters, we’re cordoned off from the action, kept in the realm of cynical uncertainty by Alex’s frenzied recounts. We laugh when Philip refers to the young teenagers below as the ‘yoot…yobbos…’ but when we see them, they’re dark, hooded cliches with malevolent expressions, manifestations of Alex’s anxieties perhaps but also grimly, cartoonishly unsurprising. What really happens on the street below is left overly-ambiguous, a decisive choice that is sometimes dramatically ineffective, as characters sprint off stage to see what’s going on and the audience have to wait it out, like guests left awkwardly unattended.

These restrictions on our ability to judge, though clearly intended to provoke queasy moral ambiguity, allow more easily for detachment. The soundtrack accompanying the scene changes, ‘I’m on The Street Where You Live’ slowed to an increasingly woozy wail, tacks on an ominous atmosphere that doesn’t quite feel organically created. Ultimately, credit for truly crystallising the tensions here go to James Perkins’ design – the walls of the flat acting as floor-to-ceiling windows, the kind of glass that distorts shapes, shrinks and disappears approaching figures so that their sudden appearance on stage is always a little unsettling. The flat becomes a kind of ivory tower, a parody of privacy that leaves its inhabitants entirely exposed.


Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer and performance poet. As a reviewer, she also writes for A Younger Theatre and formed part of their Edinburgh Young Critics team in 2012 and 2013. She performs her poetry at various events around London, and her work also is included in Things That Have Happened, an anthology of short stories from new young writers, published by Treehouse Press.

Microcosm Show Info

Directed by Derek Bond

Written by Matt Hartley

Cast includes Christopher Brandon, John Lightbody, Philip McGinley, Jenny Rainsford




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