Saturday, 8 September 2012

Theatre review: Morning

Phew! I'd been starting to get concerned about Simon Stephens' wellbeing, it must be nearly five minutes since he last premiered a new play. Here to reassure us of his continued existence is Morning, a new commission by the Lyric Hammersmith for its Young Company, first seen in Edinburgh last month. Billed as a "dark coming of age play," it follows the always eerily-smiling Stephanie (Scarlet Billham,) about to lose her mother to cancer and her best friend Cat (Joana Nastari) to university, and willing to go to insane extremes to try and keep her life from changing. In the play's central scene, she invites smitten boyfriend Stephen (Ted Riley) to the woods to surprise him with a threesome with Cat, but the girls soon find their sexual preferences have a violent edge.

Stephens is back in expressionistic mode, and has obviously once again given the director, this time Sean Holmes, free reign in how experimentally to interpret his story. On a bare stage with a few industrial-looking props like a water tank, fridge and large tent, Holmes has also brought some of his work with Filter to bear on the production, using an onstage sound engineer to play, record and loop sound, as well as to occasionally break the fourth wall even further and comment on the action and the play's structure. There's a lot of interesting ideas flying around but unfortunately I felt that few of them landed. I think much of it originates with the play itself, which flirts with coalescing into something but never quite gets beyond a general shouting into the darkness. There's something authentically teenaged about the feel of the whole thing being an "it's not fair!" tantrum, but while the cast may be that age, it's a disappointing result from an award-winning playwright in his forties.

There's something admirable about the trust clearly shown in the Young Company in handing them such a non-linear, non-literal piece to perform. When this sort of thing comes off it can be a triumph, but unfortunately this isn't one of those occasions. A piece this anti-naturalistic, that takes quite a while to resolve itself into a story, needs a cast that can project its confidence to the audience. With the exception of Vera Vera Vera's Ted Riley, one of this year's real finds, the cast's inexperience means we're never quite convinced we're in safe hands. And though no fault of their own, their age means the play's less successful moments come across like a play by non-specifically angry students, not the work of an experienced writer and director. Some of the young actors, with training and experience, could have potential. But Morning as a whole didn't work for me. I love that Simon Stephens is committed to trying new things, it's resulted in a couple of great shows this year. But inevitably it means there will be these occasions when the experiment fails.

Morning by Simon Stephens is booking until the 22nd of September at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour straight through.

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