Thursday, 17 March 2016

Theatre review: Correspondence

In Lucinda Burnett’s Correspondence it's 2011, and 16-year-old Ben's (Joe Attewell) parents have recently divorced. His time is spent between the two houses, but one constant in his life is the amount of time he spends playing X-Box Live. A wannabe journalist who edits, writes, and is most likely the sole reader of his school paper, he's socially awkward with no friends in real life, but online he talks most nights with his friend Jibreel (Ali Ariaie) in Syria. A news junkie, Ben's heard of the unrest that's starting to brew there and uses his time playing Call of Duty to get the inside track from his online friend - ostensibly for an article, but probably more because he's started to feel personally invested in the conflict. So when Jibreel stops answering his calls just after there's news of teenagers disappearing, Ben panics.

He gets it into his head that he needs to save Jibreel and take part in the anti-government protests, and somehow he and Harriet (Jill McAusland,) a school bully he has a love-hate relationship with, end up in Syria a few days later.

So there's certainly a plausibility issue to the central conceit but as long as you can accept that the play has a lot to offer, with quite a light, funny touch despite the themes. As it turns out, despite revolving around a major global political situation, Burnett's concern is primarily with mental health: Blythe Stewart's production plays out on a mostly bare stage, but the focal point of Bethany Wells' design ins a pod that Ben keeps going back to, highlighting his isolation.

The play's very uneven though: Ben, with his shifting personality, is an interesting hero, and Attewell's frenetic performance is very engaging; but the energy he brings keeps dropping as we spend far too much time with his parents (Joanna Croll, Mark Extance,) who for the purposes of the plot have to be frustratingly dim-witted, and are pretty dull with it: Even the scenes where they finally realise their son's disappeared and start panicking don't manage much tension.

Fortunately Attewell, with McAusland's perkily damaged Harriet, keep the scenes of their bizarre trip lively, even if, by trying to deal in a short play with everything from the start of what is now a global crisis, to the other crisis inside Ben's head, Burnett doesn't really give herself the chance to do more than touch lightly on any of her themes.

Correspondence by Lucinda Burnett is booking until the 2nd of April at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos.

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