First seen in Sheffield, Paines Plough’s Roundabout Season offers audiences a chance to encounter three new works by playwrights at the top of their game. The plays are being staged in the Roundabout auditorium – an ingenious in-the-round plywood amphitheatre, which will pop-up in village halls, schools and parks across the UK from Harrogate to Taunton. The steep rake and small central performance space combine to make for a vivid and immediate theatre experience. In its London home in Shoreditch Town Hall, this auditorium sits beneath a canopy of cornicing and chandeliers, the actors’ words echoing around the grand, atmospheric space.
The first play, Penelope Skinner’s The Sound of Heavy Rain, is a four-hander in thrall to the American noir of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler. However what appears to be a play about a private dick on the trail of a missing-presumed-murdered glamorous red-head through a seedy underworld of bars and clubs, turns out to be a backdrop for a meditation on the struggle of ordinary nobodies to become brilliant somebodies. Andrew Sheridan gives an outstanding performance as the narrator; channelling Mark E Smith as the Mancunian PI Dabrowski, and there is some terrific singing from Alistair Cope. The opening section is promising – Skinner delivers some killer one-liners – but as the play unfolds, the text begins to feel more disjointed and scattered, the plot starts to meander and, once the various narrative threads have been tied up, the ending feels a bit limp. It’s a daring paring – merging a brash, retro whodunit with a mournful parable on the contemporary landscape of celeb-obsessed culture, but ultimately these worlds are too distant from one another and Skinner doesn’t quite bridge the gap.
Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs invites the audience to spend an hour and a half with a neurotic, over-anxious middle-class thirty-something couple. They are annoying as hell, but Macmillan’s writing is undeniably on the money. ‘Are we good people?’ is the constant refrain as the couple debate whether or not to become parents, desperately weighing up their impulse to wreak carbon havoc by introducing another human being into the world, against their commitment to recycling, donating to charity and always turning the tap off when brushing their teeth. The paranoid hypocrisy of the middle-classes is brutally dissected, so much so that it becomes difficult to empathise with the two characters. The gender binary is also rather clichéd and boldly drawn – think Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus – with phrases like ‘male autism’ contrasting starkly with Macmillan’s portrait of an over-emoting, verbal-diarrhoea-imbued woman. But if the characters are hard to empathise with, there’s still plenty of food for thought here in this timely portrait of middle-class anxiety. And hats off to actors Alistair Cope and Kate O’Flynn who manage to make these, at times, whiny stereotypes emotionally convincing while simultaneously making the rapid-fire dialogue feel effortless.
But of the three plays in the season, Nick Payne’s One Day When We Were Young is the one that really stands out. There are parallels with Lungs here, as the play follows a couple over 60 years across three decades; the 40s, 60s and early 2000s. At first glance the premise is not that original – young lovers torn apart by war – and the whole thing looks like it might sink into nostalgia and sentimentality. But taken as a whole, the piece has a resonance. It transcends the familiarity of the set-up. Payne writes with an acute authenticity and the performances of Maia Alexander and Andrew Sheridan are simultaneously violently alive and poignantly delicate. There is a raw truth rarely seen in the innocence of Leonard and Violet’s first sexual encounter, which leads to some heartbreaking and laugh out loud funny moments. Before they take the plunge, Leonard stands at the side of the bed fingers raised in a Scouts’ salute, ready to confess to some terrible crime, which turns out to be sweaty feet, while Violet’s first utterance after the act is to prompt Leonard matter of factly ‘Do you mind passing me the Bourneville?’. On meeting 20 years later, their lives having gone down separate paths, Leonard is convincingly aghast at news of Violet’s washing machine and television. And when they are reunited once again towards the end of their lives, the portrait of ageing eccentricity is accurately drawn as Leonard and Violet grapple with inventions such as blue tooth head sets and Jaffa cakes. But this is more than a tale of star-crossed lovers forced apart by war: as Payne shades in the characters over the course of the play, the divide of education and class becoming increasingly marked as time passes. The play always stays just the right side of sugar-coated and in places is achingly sad.