It’s an unsettling experience walking into the Studio Theatre at the Royal Exchange for Conor McKee’s new play, Thrasher; it almost feels as if the audience are intruding. A woman lies curled up at the front of the stage, there’s a middle-aged man in a chair staring straight ahead, another couple asleep on the floor and there’s two more people at the corner of the stage, one staring sadly at the floor.
As the lights go down, the stories of these six people – all set during one eventful night in Manchester – begin to unravel. There’s Lee and Jenny, a couple in the final stages of a disintegrating relationship; Vic and Colin, a pretty venomous and unpleasant pairing; Vic’s friend Chloe, a Christian struggling to reconcile her faith with her desires ; and the mysterious Frank, recovering from the break up of his marriage and longing for some form of interaction with a woman.
Following the success of McKee’s previous play Burnt, a real buzz has developed around the writer and his work. He has a real ear for dialogue and creating characters who, while not enormously sympathetic, are certainly compelling and well-drawn. The structure of the play is intriguing in itself; it begins with a monologue from each character exploring the repercussions of the previous night, before flashing back to a time some 12 hours or so earlier, and then returning to the same monologues, which the audience now see with a whole new perspective. At 90 minutes, Wyllie Longmore’s production is incredibly well-paced and although it’s more of a character piece than a plot-driven play, the audience’s attention is held throughout.
The standard of performances aids this sense of engagement. Darren John Longford (best known for his role in Hollyoaks) is magnetic as Colin, despite portraying a character who is, frankly, a bit of a scumbag. His interaction with Cathy Shiel (also brilliant as the bitchy and selfish Vic) is a highlight, with scene set in a call-centre packed full of scabrously funny lines. Ryan Greaves and Claire Disley are portraying the more sympathetic characters of Lee and Jenny; Disley is incredibly nuanced as the downtrodden Jenny (reduced to tears as her character reaches the end of her tether), while Greaves is equally heartbreaking as the well-meaning but ultimately hapless Lee. Kate McArdle and Declan Wilson have a little less to do as Chloe and Frank respectively, but their characters are vital in creating the schisms that will eventually drive these people apart.
The play’s reliance on monologue over dialogue sometimes works against it and McKee’s use of repetition, especially in Lee and Vic’s climatic conversation, can be counter-productive, undermining the potency of the writing. Yet the play manages to be at times both funny and weirdly menacing; there’s a sense of foreboding that permeates the piece as McKee steers these characters towards a horribly dark place. Longmore utilises the intimacy of the Studio space impressively, and while the writing is not without its flaws, this is a fine piece which can only add to McKee’s burgeoning reputation.