Thursday, 1 May 2014

Theatre review: Debris

You've got to feel sorry for actors sometimes, when they're faced with audiences who seem to be there for no other reason than to get in the way of them doing their job. Thanks to the worst-behaved audience I've sat in for a long time, I don't feel like I can give a totally clear review of Debris at Southwark Playhouse. Dennis Kelly is a writer whose work I've had wildly variable reactions to in the past, and his debut play, revived here for its tenth anniversary, is bleak, non-linear, non-literal, and narrated by a pair of characters whose word we definitely can't take as gospel. So having an audience consisting mostly of rowdy teenagers determined to treat it as a panto, and constantly trying to wrong-foot the actors, wasn't conducive to understanding or judging the play at its best.

Not that the youth of today even take all the blame; two middle-aged women sitting next to me in the front row kept checking their watches, before finally leaning over to me and hissing "is this Three Sisters?" and charging out of The Little on discovering they'd sat through half an hour of the wrong play.


Debris is a story of abused teenagers, told by Michael (Harry McEntire) and his little sister Michelle (Leila Mimmack) through a series of highly metaphorical, mutually contradictory recollections. Extravagant deaths for their parents are a recurring theme - Michael opens the play with a story of their father crucifying himself - as well as Dickensian tales of their being stolen and sold for abuse. But when Michael finds a baby in a rubbish heap his efforts to care for it see him finally stand up to his father.


Debris seems strongly influenced by Philip Ridley, although Kelly doesn't really capture Ridley's confidence or lyricism so it's no surprise he looked for a different style of his own later in his career. The actors are both impressive and give their characters distinct styles, McEntire more conversational while Mimmack seems more stylised, her hand movements forming a kind of sign language that accompanies her speech. Abigail Graham's production on Signe Beckmann's sparse, rubble-strewn set is inventive, but sadly the thing that most impressed me was the actors' attempts to overcome the rowdy audience. McEntire in particular has a number of long speeches that go back on themselves and must be hard enough to remember without regular bursts of inappropriate laughter, chatter, eating of packed lunches, having his lines shouted back to him, or lost Chekhov fans wandering across the stage.

Debris by Dennis Kelly is booking until the 17th of May at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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