Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Theatre review: Violence and Son

Naturalism doesn't have to be a synonym for unadventurous; if a play is naturalistic in the way Gary Owen's Violence and Son is, it can play out in the way life, rather than dramatic convention does, leaving it incredibly unpredictable. Six months ago Liam's (David Moorst) mother died of cancer, and ever since the teenager has been living with his father in a remote part of Wales. But when he moved there that was the first time he ever met Rick (Jason Hughes,) who'd abandoned Liam's mother before his son was born. They're very different: Rick didn't get the nickname "Violence" for nothing, and claims to have last been completely sober when he was 14; Liam is clever, timid and a Doctor Who geek - when we first meet him he's just come back from a sci-fi convention dressed as the Eleventh Doctor (appropriately enough in the same theatre where Matt Smith first astonishingly coup'd his théâtre.) So the father/son relationship is spiky, but they're getting on with things.

Liam went to the convention with his school friend Jen (Morfydd Clark,) whom he's got a crush on but who's already got a boyfriend. With heavy rain and no cabs meaning Jen has to stay the night, she becomes the catalyst for truths about their home life to come out, as well as for a few other shocking developments.

Another ambitious set design for the Royal Court Upstairs sees the sort of fighting arena we often see in Mike Bartlett plays: Designer Cai Dyfan puts the living room where all the action takes place in the middle of a wooden drum surrounded by plastic garden chairs. Although for once I eschewed my usual front-row seats to go for a panoramic view from the benches, and that's what I'd recommend. The scene changes see Liam escape into a Doctor Who fantasy, and there's hints of this in the design as well, most obviously in a central lighting bank inspired by the TARDIS console.

Owen's writing is particularly good at misdirection, and Hamish Pirie's production is very good at handling the unexpected turns of story and mood. The play is often very funny, especially in the first act, but it has no trouble steering into darker territory like the way Rick got his nickname, or the shocking level of sexual harassment Jen, and Rick's girlfriend Suze (Siwan Morris) have to put up with if they just want to go to the pub.

In fact the surprising turns Violence and Son takes make it hard to say too much about it, except that it doesn't let its audience get away with a simple one-sided response - Pirie is worryingly good at making us doubt even what we've just seen ourselves, as different people's takes on events put different spins on things, and nobody comes out of it entirely in the right. Strong work from all four of the cast as well - Moorst even seems to have calmed down the little acting tics that stopped me from liking his past performances. A show that doesn't easily fit into a box, definitely worth catching.

Violence and Son by Gary Owen is booking until the 11th of July at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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