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PLAYGROUND – Old Red Lion Theatre, London.

PlaygroundWith a set-up that shows he has a stronger stomach than most, Peter Hamilton has chosen to base his new work Playground, a dark comedy about a fragmented society, around the investigation of gruesome child murders in contemporary East London. Each of the children has been found, dumped in Victoria Park and decapitated by a fretsaw. Adding to the horror, the murderer has provided a further jarring and disturbing twist: they have all been found with copy of an Enid Blyton Famous Five book, left open enigmatically at the hundredth page. Along with the detectives who are hunting the killer, we see the effects these crimes have on the people who use the park. Two of them are Tamsin and Stuart, inmates at a local mental hospital, who find themselves thrown together and on the verge of a new friendship.

Tying into the escapism of Blyton’s books, all the characters in Playground see their redemption being achieved by becoming someone they’re not. Whether it’s bourgeois communist Tamsin wanting to become a part of the British proletariat, or Danny, a night cleaner at Canary Wharf yearning to be a part of the liberal middle-class intelligentsia. The feeling that freedom can come only through leaving the confines of yourself is a recurring motif in this work.

As a theme this is nicely textured and well-developed, but there’s a lot more going on that seems harder to fathom. Through the repeated use of the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme, as well as in its East End location, it seems to be flirting with psychogeography. At other points there is a suggestion of a religious theme: characters are always being referred to as Roman Catholics and at one point, one of the detectives bafflingly claims his parents are the last remaining observers of a Christian heresy that died out 600 years ago. While these repeated references peak your interest they never really develop and in the end you suspect they are little more than writerly flourishes, either something lost in the production or half-baked in the first place.

The strongest part of the work is in the scenes between Tamsin and Stuart: in these moments, it feels like Playground has the kernel of a good, naturalistic drama within it. Whether by inclination or affectation, Hamilton’s tendency is instead to go for the ripe, the heightened and the surreal and it’s in doing this that the play falls down. Chief offenders on this front are the two detectives Mitchell and Birch. Written massively against type as married men who’ve started a sexual relationship with each other, they talk almost completely in non-sequiturs and just aren’t as funny as they need to be. While Dan McClane does a good job as Mitchell, Christopher James Barley’s Birch is distractingly overplayed, a tiresome presence who saps a lot of the energy from elsewhere.

If Playground is all about people wanting to be someone else, as a work it has a slightly different problem: it wants to be about three different things all at the same time. In the final scene when Tamsin and Stuart speak in monologue about how their lives pan out, it feels like it’s come from a completely different work, one where the audience’s ability to make an emotional connection with the characters isn’t undercut but the daftness of what else has been happening on stage. This last ditch attempt isn’t enough though and, Ken McClymont’s production is in the end incoherent, flippant and underwhelming.

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Reviewed 17/10/15

By Robbie Lumsden
@robbielumsden

13th October – 7th November 2015
Old Red Lion Theatre, London, EC1V 4NJ.

 

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