Sometimes the technical skill of a production, and the very nature of the space venue itself, can be enough to transport an audience. This is the case with Grindstone Theatre Company’s production of Max Saunders-Singer’s The Glasshouse, a new play set in a dilapidated shed which acts as a makeshift prison for deserters and conscientious objectors during the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. The set is incredible, the small space transformed, the stage covered in hay-bales, with leaves and woodchip strewn across the floor, the room illuminated by a spotlight that shines through a hole in the roof. When thunder roars outside, rain pours down and a soundtrack of melancholy strings marks the beginning and end of scenes.
DoBo Design’s set – which has been nominated for an Off West End Award – is enhanced by the claustrophobic intimacy of the Tristan Bates Theatre. The performers are up close with the audience and the atmosphere is suffocating and fraught with discomfort.
Throughout the first half of the play, the cast skilfully carry things along; there’s a lot of talent on this stage and newcomer Sam Adamson deserves particular credit. He plays Moon, a mentally ill, epileptic young Irish boy imprisoned in the barn, and his performance is outstanding and incredibly poignant. For much of the production, he curls vulnerably in a corner, his passivity interspersed every so often with panic attacks and epileptic seizures so lucid it adds to the sense of discomfort the piece generates.
The other actors are strong too: John Askew’s Blythe is a sadistic officer who abuses his position of power, while Simon Naylor’s Harper, is a seemingly hardened man with a soft heart who gradually builds a friendship with the prisoners. The playwright, Saunders-Singer, plays Pip, a teacher from Conisbrough who is a conscientious objector.
The writing doesn’t always stand up. The first half is thoughtful in its discussion of morality, of Christian faith, and the need to “turn the other cheek”. Pip refuses to fight and proudly asserts that he would never kill a man, even if he had been wronged, even if that man was a danger to children. When the spiteful Blythe mocks his views, we sense that this philosophy may be tested later on.
Things become frantic and confused in the second half as if Saunders-Singer doesn’t quite know where to stop. The scenes of torture bordered on the titillating, violence for the sake of violence. Other aspects of the plot feel laboured. Pip’s brother Truman happens to be fighting nearby, primarily it seems so he can be used as a convenient plot device. There is some attempt to introduce a family feud between the two brothers, but Truman suddenly changes his mind for no apparent reason at the end of the play, in order to tie it all up.
The character of war poet Mary Borden, who pops up in a nurse’s uniform to read her poetry between scenes, is also problematic. I wasn’t quite sure what Saunders-Singer was trying to achieve with her presence. It felt inconsistent in tone and detracted from the rest of the production which, while boasting some incredibly talented performances and a stunning and hugely evocative set, fails to hang together in a satisfying way.