FringeReview UK 2016
Leo Butler’s seventy-minute play premieres at the Almeida directed by Sacha Wares with Frankie Fox making his debut. Miriam Beucher’s flat circulating escalator set almost snakes the show from under the actors’ feet.
Leo Butler’s new play comes to the Almeida after five years’ development, directed by Sacha Wares with a superb conveyer-belt set by (almost inevitably) Miriam Buether, startling as always, as the belt snakes around the auditorium asymmetrically with items added and subtracted, including a working Sainsbury self-service bank, a sparsely-treed park, road construction, bus stop, doctor’s surgery, tube, tube exit gates, wooden doors for a council estate and DSS centre. When people sit they do so with concealed supports like the gold and silver figures in Covent Garden and Southbank. The metaphor of wasted life on a system cycle couldn’t be clearer. It’s a La Ronde for loners.
Liam is seventeen. His parents work too hard and Liam has no work plans at all, wholly unskilled and perhaps equally unreflective. We watch two days happen to him, through his largely uncomprehending eyes where the supreme technical achievement of the set cruelly guys the theatricality drained from the protagonist though his lack of any articulation.
This lack’s more deep-seated than even Büchner’s Woyzeck, without torture sex and death, since Liam cannot emote or express more than a jumble of perilous affirmatives which he instantly finds he must mumble backwards or silently retract. We see him begin and end in a doctors surgery where with nothing specifically wrong he resorts to some counselling gambit though denies depression: his malaise isn’t as defined; nor is he.
Butler subjects him like Büchner, as it were, to single or multiple crowd encounters. Liam isn’t wholly devoid of contacts, just any that care for him. He can’t admit his lack of experience to one old chipper school friend; another tells him to get a life.
Lamari’s mum (Sarah Niles, in one of the defining moments) does the same. Lamari’s one desolate nodal point in Liam’s befuddled seeing. It’s Duramaney Kamara‘s Lamari who cajoles Liam with his uselessness. The other draw is Sport Direct in Oxford Street, for no good reason. Liam’s barred from entry.
Butler’s bleached expectations for his protagonist beaches Liam’s one healthy resort at seventeen: sex. A blonde Roma girl taunts him with her breasts when he’s seeking Lamari, and Liam masturbates in the park only to get cajoled by a man and his boundingly real dog. Butler’s point is that Liam’s so inured with nothing to offer that being non-aggressive he’s given up even on basic instinct.
Even Liam’s younger half-sister Mysha at nine has a mobile network that excludes Liam – as she decisively rejects his lame counsel. Liam’s without a battery; no-one would more than text him.
One teenage boy befriends Liam, a dealer (Mohammad Amiri), who leaves him with shopping and cash as well as fragile promises of entitlement. But when Liam makes their later rendezvous the boy’s jacket is all that’s left at what’s now a crime scene.
The crowd scenes are remarkably orchestrated, a ranging series of meta-conversations play out. One middle-aged commuter’s angered at a tube exit by Liam’s attempts to fare-dodge. When Police get heavy the commuter attempts to rescue Liam; called a groomer by a vagrant girl he moves off only after Liam’s ludicrously nearly locked up, the commuter himself warned off, with Liam just cautioned. Peter Temple also plays the sympathetic, hopelessly unprepared doctor, asking Liam to imagine his life in five years.
Frankie Fox’s stage debut is an intricate management of white noise on a grey-noise backdrop of eighteen actors. His only natural distinction, red hair, might place him but his anomie is all his own. His swallowed language is assured, he projects haplessness and a stunned withdrawal from life before life.
If Beuther’s set almost becomes the star the virtuosity of Butler’s script allows Wares’ direction of forces to speed-read its density and length with even a set of alternate outtakes. Many won’t warm to its circular argument, drained as it is even of a protagonist who might fight for an identity. This reviewer had to adjust to its flattened arc. It nevertheless remains an urgent articulation of just such silence. In its minor, extremely skilled way it’s a zero-degree Woyzeck for our times, where even the blood’s congealed.