Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Playground' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 21st October 2015

Playground is a group of interesting characters in search of a plot. Set in east London's Victoria Park, the story revolves around a book club studying the Enid Blyton's Famous Five novels. They are; the fidgeting and childlike Danny (Richard Fish), ardent young Communist Tamsin (Laura Garnier), neurotic and sexually repressed Carolyn (Josie Ayers) and nervous abuse survivor Stuart (Simon Every).

Tamsin and Stuart are patients at a psychiatric hospital, Danny is a former patient and we meet Carolyn on her way to commit suicide in Regent's Canal. Bubbling away in the background is a serial killer whose modus operandi is to lure children away from their parents and swiftly decapitate them. Investigating this are caricature detectives Mitchell  (Dan MacLane) and Birch (Christopher James Barley). Also there's the cake-selling Bella (Sarah Quist), who is largely extraneous to proceedings.

A dark comedy, I can't deny that Playground succeeded in wringing a decent amount of genuine chuckles from me. The lion's share of these came from Garnier's excellent Tamsin, a pitch perfect parody of an ardent young Communist who's read a couple of books but has no actual experience of life. I never got tired her her haughtily quoting Trotsky as she consigns ideas to the "dustbin of history" or trying her hardest to align herself with the somewhat perplexed working class Stuart.

Everyone else gets a little moment to shine. Occasionally the comedy is rather broad, as with the outrageously campy drag queen detective with a Thatcher fetish. Sometimes its more subtle, as we gradually piece together the erotic fixations of the severely repressed Carolyn. Everyone bounces well off each other; the play cycling between combinations of different characters just to see how they react to one another.

The only problem is this: I have no idea what the hell this play is about. I'm generally fine with plot being a secondary concern in theatre, but Playground barfs up a big pile of apparently disconnected plot elements and just lets them sit there, confusing everyone. Theoretically the off-stage serial killer provides narrative thrust, but none of the characters appear to care a huge amount about it and some don't even comment on it at all.

That plot element is contrasted with the works of Enid Blyton; characters brandish copies of Famous Five books throughout the play and four huge book covers adorn the set. That serial killer is even leaving copies of Blyton books on his victims, always opened at page 100. It's a nice nostalgia hit to hear people talking about Kirrin Island, Aunt Fanny and Timmy the dog - but I'll be damned if I can work out what thematic connection there is.

To me the Blyton connection seems suspiciously like a vestigial element from an earlier draft of the play. If you squint you can just about imagine Playground as a contemporary satire of The Famous Five. Theoretically our characters could be a group of people teaming up to solve a mystery, yet where Blyton used gleamingly moralistic British kids, Playground uses the mentally ill. Hobbling that interpretation is that Playground's characters don't actually do any mystery-solving, they just sit around wrapped up their various individual dramas.

There being no obvious connection between the two major elements means Playground just doesn't work. The end result feels like a group of sketch comedy characters crowbarred into a flimsy narrative that quickly sputters out. It's a shame - there's some neat writing and performances here, but without any connective tissue it's completely wasted.


Playground is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 7 November

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