By Richard Bowdery
I must confess at the outset to having more than a passing interest in the theme of this play. During my time at the Home Office I worked on ‘It Doesn’t Have to Happen’, a campaign aimed at reducing knife crime amongst young people. I heard first-hand testimony from those whose lives fell under the brutality of this terrible crime. Yet in amongst the darkness there were shafts of light: people who chose to make a positive difference.
Watching this play brought back memories from those days. Playwright Shelagh Stephenson has managed to capture both the emotion and intensity of those affected by knife crime, without it becoming a cliché. But the words are only as good as the cast who act them out.
The play centres on the aftermath of a young man’s murder; the effect on his family – mum, dad and brother; and the tensions between each of them as they sought to make sense of it all.
It is to the cast’s credit that they did a very good job conveying the sense of loss, grief, and despair which marked the family like a stigma. The quality of acting drew you in to each character’s heartbreak. This was aided by performing in the intimacy of Bromley Little Theatre’s bar area, which made you feel involved, albeit on the periphery.
It was no surprise that Stephenson put two women centre stage: Mary the mother, played by Fiona Cullen, and Emma the killer, played by Bethan Boxall. Both roles required a strong performance. Both actresses delivered.
You could feel the mother’s anguish as she tried to understand why a complete stranger should take her son’s life. At the same time she was trying to hold her family together when it would have been easier to let it fall apart. Through it all Mary displayed a great stoicism as she battled on both fronts.
Emma was a character you should have disliked, for obvious reasons. Her first appearance was some way into the play. This gave you more reason to dislike her as it gave the family more time to convey their suffering. But as you began to learn more about her, for instance she couldn’t read, you realised that although she was deserving of her prison sentence, she in her own way was a victim: a victim of society which had lost its way.
Although these two women were at the forefront of the play, they were ably supported by Joe Dominic, as the brother Joe, Andrew Newbon, as John the father, and Julie Binysh who played Elizabeth, the prison visitor. However, the term ‘supported’ doesn’t do them justice. Each of their performances meant that ‘the whole [was] greater than the sum of its parts’.
Joe effortlessly brought out the angst and resentment his character felt at being perceived the least favoured of the two brothers. I have seen Joe perform once before in ‘Bronte’. If he continues to put in class performances like his latest outing he will grace the stage for years to come.
Andrew, as John, probably had the most difficult role to perform. To act drunk is not as easy you might think. He conveyed it in such a credible way that you felt shocked when he slapped his wife in a drunken rage. But to see Andrew begin to come round, though not totally, to his wife’s desire to try to understand why her son died was acting of a high standard.
It was Elizabeth the prison visitor who acted as the conduit as she sought to bring the family and Emma together. The character of Elizabeth could have come over as syrupy, sentimental and as a do-gooder. The fact that Elizabeth displayed none of these traits was down to the fine acting of Julie Binysh.
If I did have one issue with the play it was the monologues interspersed with the action. The play has been performed in prison settings and to structure it this way made sense if you wanted to stop it at various junctures to discuss with the prison audience. But I think the play would have flowed better had the monologues been incorporated into the action. And it would have made the conflict between each character more acute and therefore more dramatic.
That said, it should not detract from a fine play performed by a talented cast; because it does highlight that knife crime doesn’t have to happen.