Friday, 5 July 2013

Theatre review: Mint

Director Clare Lizzimore tries her hand at playwrighting (and immediately makes it into my good books by not attempting to pull double duty and direct it herself.) Instead Caroline Steinbeis directs Mint, this week's offering from the Royal Court's rep season. Mint is the name of the colour of paint in Alan's jail cell, and he chose it himself - one of the few times during his lengthy incarceration that he had any small measure of control. The exact nature of Alan's crime is revealed later on, but we know from the off that it's something pretty serious - he's behind bars for several years and he starts off in a maximum security prison, although good behaviour sees him moved elsewhere down the line. Sam Troughton may never have been more intense than as the man whose supposed rehabilitation we follow from the end of the last millennium into the start of this one.

Chloe Lamford's set of a room-sized packing crate has been, for me, a hit of this rep season in general, but I can imagine this being the play that prompted the idea since an enclosed box is apt for a story the first half of which we spend with a man confined to a small space. We meet Alan and his family through their visits, some of them turning up more regularly than others, and with different attitudes - but all sharing at heart a bafflement at what someone they thought they knew has done.

Lizzimore has some rather impressive touches in her portrait of how prison dehumanises its inmates - there's stories of casual guard cruelty but there's also more subtle moments, like the aforementioned significance choosing the colour of his cell walls and painting them himself takes on (Alan refers to it as his "new room.") And a particular kind of isolation is suggested by a scene where his sister Stephanie (Laura Elphinstone) visits him post-9/11 and starts spouting clichés about how nothing will ever be the same, at which Alan's initially nonplussed: He knows about the attacks, of course, but the reaction of the average person on the street is alien to him.

I particularly liked the building of his relationship with youngest sister Nicola (Angela Terence,) who starts by quoting Daily Mail headlines about prisons being summer camps and ends up perhaps the most empathetic to her brother. And when he is released and returns to his parents' house, his mother Charlotte (the ghost of Debbie Chazen - seriously, there's about a third as much of her as there was when she was last on this stage a little over a year ago) tries her best to deal with how institutionalised he's become. His dream of becoming a chef - doomed to remain a dream as even the most menial job won't give him an interview with his criminal record - finds an outlet in teaching his young niece Amber (Tess Fontaine) to bake (thus adding to one of 2013's theatrical memes of eggs being smashed on stage.)

After an opening 70 minutes I found very powerful, Mint does come unstuck in its final scene, where Alan cooks for his family and his until-now very quiet father Simon (Alan Williams) publicly takes out his frustrations on his son. I didn't know which was the case: Had we missed a scene where Alan did something particularly cruel to his family, beyond the decade-old crime he's still being punished for? His parents frequently ask if they should blame themselves but there's little evidence of their son himself trying to blame them. Or, is Simon simply meant to be the most repellent human being ever, picking at the open sore of his son's despair until he causes a breakdown, then berating him for that too? On a couple of levels this climactic scene just doesn't work, despite some heroic efforts from the cast, particularly Troughton who's putting in the kind of performance that would be up for awards if the show were running for longer than just five days.

Mint by Clare Lizzimore is booking until the 6th of July at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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