Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review: 'Don't Look Away' at The Pleasance, 8th May 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

The consensus is in: everything is terrible. The headlines on any given day talk of environmental catastrophe, political paralysis, the rise of the far right and technology having broken our brains. What can an individual do in the face of all that? 

That's the question at the heart of Grace Chapman's Don't Look Away. Set in 2015, the play is about the complex relationship between Syrian asylum seeker Adnan (Robert Hannouch), middle-aged cleaner Cath (Julia Barrie) and her student son Jamie (Brian Fletcher). 

We open with Adnan's first moments in the UK, walking into a Bradford community centre to try and claim asylum. He encounters Cath and, after a mutually suspicious exchange, she offers him a bed at hers for the night. This soon turns into a permanent arrangement, with Adnan occupying Cath's absent son Jamie's bedroom as the Home Office processes his asylum claim. But things become complicated when Jamie unexpectedly returns from university.

Each character then spends the play wobbling along individual moral tightropes. Cath must juggle her responsibilities as a mother against a moral compass telling her to help Adnan much as she can. Adnan is stuck in legal limbo until his claim is processed and fears he is a freeloader, while becoming increasingly paranoid about family members left behind in Calais. Jamie is peeved that Adnan is usurping his mother's affections and is selfishly concerned about his financial drain on the family.

Cath's cramped flat ends up as a political microcosm of the country. We know the moral thing is to help those fleeing their destroyed country, but what (if any) are the limits to which we can assist? Could said help end up stoking resentment and potentially make the situation worse? These aren't questions with easy answers, and Don't Look Away's choice to leave its narrative open-ended is probably a smart one. The heart of all this is summarised by Jamie's rant that his mother's help is like:
"Throwing a punch at a tidal wave. It's not going to make it stop or slow down. It's just going to engulf you and me until there's nothing left."
But while Don't Look Away provides a lot of political and moral fat to chew on, there are a number of deficiencies that cause it to stumble. Prime among them is that Adnan isn't particularly plausible, particularly in the early scenes when he's just arrived in the country. Here he's presented as a goofy slapstick moron, bizarrely attempting to claim asylum from a woman cleaning a community centre. He's a refugee, not an idiot.

This is compounded by Hannouch's performance, which pinballs between emotions so rapidly it's difficult to get a read on the character. That the play can't quite get Adnan right leaves the character as a mere catalyst for the mother/son conflict between Cath and Jamie. This is unfortunate, and while I can understand why the story is told from Cath's perspective it'd have been far more powerful seeing all this through Adnan's eyes.

On top of that, it's a fairly straightforwardly staged and naturalistic play on an abstract set. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but more realistic set design could have helped amplify the claustrophobia that the script seems to want to create.

Don't Look Away has its heart in the right place and is only going to get more relevant. As the effects of climate change ramp up we're going to see an increasing number of refugees fleeing countries that have descended into chaos due to famines and drought. The issues presented here are ones that we should all grapple with. But sadly, as a play, it's lacking.

Don't Look Away is at The Pleasance until 18 May. Tickets here.

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