Sunday, 11 May 2014

Theatre review: Microcosm

Up-and-coming playwright Matt Hartley takes us to a hot, stuffy summer in a desirable part of London in Microcosm. At least, the area seems desirable when Alex (Philip McGinley) and his girlfriend Clare (Jenny Rainsford) move in, money left in his grandmother's will having meant Alex could afford somewhere nicer than a young couple might otherwise expect. But the suburban dream doesn't last long, and as well as an overly friendly neighbour who won't leave him alone, Alex is soon making enemies of a local gang of teenagers: Coming from a small town, it's not in his nature to stand by and ignore problems, so when one of the kids speeds on his motorbike down the residential road he confronts him - and finds himself targeted by a gang throwing bricks through his windows and posting turds in his letterbox.

Derek Bond's production nicely judges a short play that starts funny and builds up into something more sinister, although whether the most dangerous thing is the hoodies outside or the increasingly paranoid Alex inside is a question at the heart of the play; James Perkins' set design, with its perspex walls allowing shadowy figures to loom outside the flat, helps with this sense of menace.

A lot of theatre and screen drama invites us to look at misunderstood young people, so it's interesting to see something from the perspective of someone who feels threatened by them. Especially as it's not a stereotype of a victim, but someone as studly as McGinley, who goes convincingly from an obvious confidence that he can handle himself, and a belief that the hoodies can be reasoned with, to a paranoid wreck trapped inside his own home. It's a contrast to a funny but sinister turn from John Lightbody as the sandal-wearing, Tom Cruise-fixated neighbour Philip, whose reasonable-sounding arguments against the local teens have a tendency to climax in right-wing viciousness.

The cast is completed by Christopher Brandon as a Hot Cop1 whose well-meaning but obviously ineffectual advice only feeds into Alex's obsession. The claustrophobic atmosphere of a hot summer is a bit too realistically conveyed in Soho Upstairs (what happened to that air conditioning they had installed?) but it does mean McGinley spends some time in his vest and shorts. Actually I have to admit I may have got distracted from what was going on at times, because the last thing I saw McGinley in was Straight2, so once Alex set a load of video cameras up I was just waiting for him and Hot Cop to get drunk and sweaty in front of them. Tragically, this does not happen.

Microcosm didn't end as I expected it to, although not necessarily in a good way - its structure seems to be leading up to a bigger twist than we actually get, and the play's conclusions on personal responsibility don't feel entirely satisfying. Very strongly acted though, and a production with a few hair-raisingly intense moments.

Microcosm by Matt Hartley is booking until the 25th of May at Soho Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

1his character's just credited as "Police Officer," so I reckon my alternative name for him's just as valid. And more accurate.

2thanks to the state of him in Straight, McGinley must surely be the only actor I failed to recognise when he showed up in Game of Thrones because his facial hair was too tidy

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