Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: 'Screens' at Theatre503, 12th August 2016

Screens greets its audience with a tortured, decapitated and very dead cat. Eventually the house lights go down and a middle-aged woman enters stage left, reacts in horror to the sight before her and furtively scoops it into her shopping bag. Who did this and why? And why is this woman nicking a dead cat? It's a fantastically ambiguous opening to a play, leaving the audience curious and disturbed, but above all wanting to find out what the hell is going on.

Sadly, we never do. Playwright Stephen Laughton sets out to explore contemporary models of self and identity yet becomes trapped in a quagmire of expository dialogue, bizarre character developments and the most contrived narrative coincidences I've seen in ages.

The story revolves around three members of a London family of Turkish Cypriot origin. Mum Emine (Fisun Burgess) came to London to escape the worsening situation in Cyprus in the 70s. She's subsequently had two children, neurotically gay Al (Declan Perring) and spiky teenager Ayşe (Nadia Hynes). The meat of the play is an exploration of their identity, kicked off by a revelatory email that show that their Mum might not be quite who she said she was.

This kicks off an exploration of how nationality contributes to identity. Laughton smartly zeroes in on two people for whom their this is a bit blurred. Al and Ayşe take pride in their Turkish and Cypriot heritage, yet have to square it with their cultural and behavioural Britishness. On top of that, they spend half the play glued to their phones maintaining their online identities; Al having shy little flirts on Grindr; and Ayşe constantly updating her Instagram and Twitter, commenting on her life to her thousands of followers.

Part of what makes Screens so disappointing is that it's got a couple of nuggets of brilliance in it. There's a great bit of dialogue where Al outlines the pressure of being the second generation of immigrants, explaining that they're who their parents had in mind when they fled halfway across the world, so pressure is on them to make the most of life here and not squander the sacrifices they've made. Similarly, there's a really nice bit of writing where Ayşe rejoices in her patchwork quilt identity, enjoying being a little bit Muslim, a little bit Turkish, a little bit street: British 'with a twist'. Also, I appreciate the sheer now-ness of the play: this is an explicitly post-Brexit piece of drama that takes great pains to reflect right now - to the point of featuring Pokemon Go.

Top stuff. But it's soon completely swamped by shite. Perhaps the earliest sign that things are going awry is a dreadful and very long scene in which Al meets a guy, Ben (Paul Bloomfield) for a Grindr hookup which devolves into an argument on the Greek invasion of Cyprus in the 70s. Now, given that much of the play hinges on us understanding why Turkish Cypriots don't like Greeks, the audience needs to understand the post-war history of Cyprus. 

Even so, a scene in which a shy gay man meets someone for a first date with the aim of exploring his sexuality while simultaneously delivering lengthy plot-crucial, expository dialogue on the complicated history of postwar Cyprus is a chocolate teapot: no matter how you construct it, it ain't gonna work.

By the three-quarters mark things go off the rails completely. Unbelievable coincidences stack up upon one another and the characters make bizarre, almost surreal choices. 

Alright, I'm going to need to spoil a bit of plot to explain this properly, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you care. So, Ayşe is hanging out her boyfriend Charlie (George Jovanovic). They want some alcohol and ask the next passing pedestrian to buy it for them. In a ludicrous twist, this turns out to be Ben, Al's date from before. He refuses, and in the space of about five minutes she calls him a paedo on Twitter, this quickly trends, they fight and then she beats him to death with a chair. I couldn't help but think of Ron Burgundy.

It's just... why?

Soon after, just under an hour after it started, Screens abruptly ends with nothing resolved. It feels as if, having written himself into a corner, Laughton bodges together a quasi-enigmatic ending and bolts for the fire exit. 

On top of all that, the acting isn't exactly up to scratch either. Fisun Burgess comes off best with a quietly dignified, guilt-ridden take on the mother, and though Declan Perring is stuck in one gear, at least it's the right gear. But Nadia Hynes just isn't believable as a London teenager, her 'street' gesticulations and vocal tics very mannered: when she says "aks" rather than "ask" it just doesn't sound natural.

The whole experience was faintly heartbreaking: Theatre503 has always distinguished itself when it comes to writing and I consider its productions the gold standard of the London fringe. While the ideas powering Screens are deeply relevant, their dramatic execution is farcically clumsy. This is a deeply disappointing night and a major wobble for a great venue. 

Screens is at Theatre503 until 3rd September. Tickets here.

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