Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Theatre review: Pornography

Although technically amateur performances, I try to review drama school productions impartially as the people involved hope to be working professionally in the near future.

Simon Stephens' Pornography is a story of London, and a particularly dark underbelly of it at that. In stories that for the most part don't directly intersect, people who seem likeable and ordinary at first reveal twisted, often shocking sides. A brother and sister (Abubakar Salim and Bryony Corrigan) meet up again after a long time; the reason they stayed apart so long may be connected to their incestuous feelings for each other, and their reunion sees them give in to them. An 83-year-old woman (Rhiannon Neads) reveals an obsession with porn, while a lecturer (Nemanja Oskorus) misinterprets the attentions of a former student (Gemma May) with uncomfortable results, and a hassled working mother (Sasha Wilson) starts to imagine taking revenge on the company that's overworking her. Schoolboy Jason (James Fletcher) seems to be our guide through all this, but he may actually have the most disturbed mind of all.

Stephens tells these stories over an eventful week for the capital in 2005, framed by the Live8 concert and the 7/7 bombings, while in between it was announced that London had won the bid for the 2012 Olympics. He's a writer who likes directors to have a strong influence on how his writing transfers to the stage, and if I recall correctly Pornography doesn't have a set running order, and it's down to the director to choose how the scenes are split up. Selina Cartmell chooses to tell the story in chronological order, starting on the Saturday with the cynicism of the characters talking about Live8 and its aims, and leading up to a picture of London united, walking home on the Thursday after the attacks.

This means the whole of Luke Rampersad's monologue as one of the bombers is saved for the end, which is a risky choice, but Rampersad pulls it off, and having the whole speech in one go brings out the banality of his fatal journey to London. It's one of the ironies of the play that the character planning to blow up strangers is the least obviously consumed by hatred for them. It's interesting to see this play again after the 2012 Olympics have been and gone, because a cynical belief that the city could never come together enough to make them a success is a recurring theme, which with hindsight makes the play seem even more misanthropic than it already does.

Cartmell's production really stamps its own identity onto the play, with a lot of help from Fi Russell's traverse set which allows for the show to start and end with an impressive coup-de-théâtre. The limitations of colour-blind casting are a bit apparent in the incest storyline - there's just not the flesh-creeping factor if the couple don't look like they could be related, and in fact judging by a very abrupt change in audience reaction, I suspect many of them had forgotten they were brother and sister until reminded of it midway through the sex scene.

But unlike some past experiences with drama school shows, there's no-one here I wouldn't be happy to see crop up in professional productions in future - if it weren't for some of the actors being too young for their roles, this would be indistinguishable from a professional production. James Fletcher is particularly good, the treatment of Jason much more effective, I thought, than even the original professional production at the Tricycle, which saw him as hissingly creepy and bursting with rage from the outset. Fletcher, by contrast, absolutely sucks in the audience with cheeky-chappy charm, which makes his casual revelations of racism and extreme violence all the more shocking. I suspect he'll get plenty of work, although given his height and boyishness, he should probably get used to the idea that he'll be wearing school uniform well into his thirties. Neads and Oskorus are perhaps a bit too likeable as the older characters - I think there may have been some text cuts to the old lady's hate-filled side as well, with means the closest thing to a redemption arc in the play falls flat. But there's not really any weak links here.

Pornography by Simon Stephens is booking in repertory until the 5th of June at the LAMDA Linbury Studio.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

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