Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 16 September 2016

Review: Party Trap at Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall ⋄ 13th September - 1st October 2016

Back to front, front to back: Holly Williams reviews Rob Sutherland’s palindromic play.

Holly Williams
Party Trap at Shoreditch Town Hall. Photo: Alex Brenner.

Party Trap at Shoreditch Town Hall. Photo: Alex Brenner.

No-one said writing a palindromic play would be easy.
But is the effort worth it?
For you – in awe, somewhat, of the cleverness –
watch impressed. Tortured.
Will the form serve the content?
Trapped will.

The form: serve.
The content: watchim pressed, tortured.
What of the cleverness?
Awesome, in.
But is the effort worth it for you?
One said: writing a palindromic play would be easy!

Writing a palindromic play clearly is not easy. It’s really fiendishly hard, I would imagine, having just written an extraordinarily feeble 14-line palindromic review-cum-weird poem. That took a while, and probably doesn’t even follow the rules properly. But boy, it also gives your brain a good work out. It’s satisfying, as well as completely maddening; I can see that it could get intellectually addictive. But I also think it’s more fun for the one writing than for their audience.

Because it’s not a very good review, is it? Clarity is lost. Meaning is muddy. All I’ve managed are fragments, not sentences, and the rhythm goes strange. And while Ross Sutherland is a hundred thousand times better at writing palindromic text than I, such complaints can also be levelled at Party Trap (the name, itself, a palindrome of course).

Still, I really am in awe of the cleverness of it. Party Trap works better than it has any right to, when you consider the epic nature of the constraint. The first half of the play is repeated, backwards, lines given to different individuals or sliced in different ways, but that it manages characters, plot, or coherence at all is impressive. And there’s quite a lot of all three.

A TV presenter, Sir David Bradley, prepares for a big interview with the new secretary of state for media, Amanda Barkham MP, representing an ominous new force in British politics: the Freedom Party. They’re busily passing bills to take state control of the media, and to make it a hate crime to abuse – or, really, just criticise – politicians. Noble journalist Sir David (Simon Hepworth, convincingly smug) offers a stirring speech about the importance of the free press, of holding corrupt politicians to account. He’s determined to take Amanda down, and before their interview tries to rattle her with rather nasty threats.

But, mid interview, there’s a switch: cool and smooth and unflappable, Amanda (Zara Plessard) essentially stages a coup, taking control of the questioner’s seat, and exposing Sir David’s own scandal: as his wife was dying, he was snorting coke and shagging prostitutes. His threatening comments to her are played back, shaming him. This is pretty unconvincing, since any veteran presenter would surely be very wary of just this happening; I’m sure Paxman had his tricks, but I doubt they ever involved the threat of physical violence.

Still, violence is the order of the day: suddenly a much nastier trap is sprung, and Sir David is kidnapped and tortured – full tazering and ear slicing – by Amanda, donning a balaclava. She wants to extract an on-screen endorsement of the Freedom Party, and denouncement of the press as scum, gutter rats.

Obviously, this is pretty absurd. But it’s also – again – clever: a palindromic reversal, a spouting of the complete opposite view, yet using exactly the same words. The mind boggles. And the form could arguably – almost – be making a wider, satiric swipe at our politics and press: they’ll spout anything, say something passionate one day and U-turn the next. Politics, journalism and hypocrisy are pretty familiar bedfellows. Still, that renunciation is drawn out by torture, so the point doesn’t quite stand.

Sutherland also super smartly weaves in phrases that seem to have a double, knowing function – not only working, plot-wise, in both halves, but becoming a comment on the play’s structure: “language appears to be moving backwards… time is moving forward”. It appears the form and content match up.

But do they? Or has the story been forced around the form? If you just re-wrote Party Trap not as a palindromic play, you wouldn’t be very taken with it. And, with its limitations in place, it understandably doesn’t find much character depth or contextualising flesh. Video screens help with this, but still, the constant straining to make the words work basically overrides all other concerns.

Yes, it’s impressive that Sutherland can write a palindromic play, but it being a palindrome doesn’t really achieve anything beyond proving its own improbable existence. And, to the ear, the whole thing is rather torturous.

It’s an effortful watch. Many lines are a just a little… off. Something in the rhythm or phrasing, the dialogue jerky and disjointed. You’re always aware that you’re watching a play created under constraint. That’s fine for 20 minutes of totally kudos-winning showing off at a scratch night; at 70 minutes, audiences may be less charmed. It’s a party trick trapped by its own cleverness.

Party Trap is on until 1st October 2016 at Shoreditch Town Hall. Click here for more details. 


Holly Williams

Holly is an freelance journalist and staff critic for What's on Stage. She was lead arts writer for the Independent on Sunday before its demise, and has since written for Time Out, The Stage, the BBC, The Observer, the TLS, Elle and The Telegraph, among others. She hails from Wales, but lives in London. There's more here:

Review: Party Trap at Shoreditch Town Hall Show Info

Directed by Rob Watt

Written by Ross Sutherland

Cast includes Simon Hepworth, Zara Plessard



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