Thursday, 19 April 2012

Theatre review: Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Southwark Playhouse doesn't specify preview periods for its shows, but this review is of the second public performance.

When Jessica Swale comes to Southwark Playhouse it's usually to put her very distinctive stamp on Restoration comedy. This time though she returns for a darker theme, a 20th anniversary revival of Frank McGuinness' hostage drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. Simon Kenny's thrust set stabs out into the audience, and as we enter a triangle of black curtain shields the small basement room where American doctor Adam (Joseph Timms) and Irish journalist Edward (Billy Carter) are being held hostage in Lebanon. Soon they're joined by English university lecturer Michael (Robin Soans) and the three men build a friendship that rallies their spirits against their unseen captors.

If Swale's approach is more conventional than the one she employs for Restoration comedy, it is still solid - the production is rather sluggish at the moment but with time, and a bigger audience than a midweek matinee attracts, that should be improved. It feels unfair to pick out one of the three excellent performers as the men create a vivid fantasy world that helps them keep their sanity under the constant threat of execution and the fear that the world's forgotten them; but Soans is particularly moving.

I remember seeing and liking the play in the mid-'90s, and though it still has some power it has also dated in many ways. Its sentimentality hasn't aged well, and there's something very anachronistic about a play set in a Middle Eastern hostage situation that spends quite so much time dealing with Anglo-Irish resentment, especially when the play specifically avoids the characters discussing the actual political situation that got them there. Adam's increasing interest in the Koran is something else that feels like it would have been dealt with very differently nowadays.

Apart from the pace which will hopefully pick up, there's little I can fault with the actual production. But the play itself feels rather repetitive by the end. Perhaps Someone Who'll Watch Over Me was one of those plays that provided a fresh perspective at the time, but whose uniqueness has been eroded by time and familiarity.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness is booking until the 12th of May at Southwark Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval. (In what must be a record even for them, the website underestimates the running time by almost an hour, and at time of writing advertises it as "90 minutes." Which may explain why so many of the audience were confused at the interval arriving about 80 minutes in.)

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