I'm not a huge fan double or triple bills of short plays. It's not that it's necessarily a bad format, but it's very tricky to write about while doing justice to each individual play. That remains the case, but I walked out of The Old Red Lion's latest triple bill (described, somewhat pretentiously, as a 'triptych') in a great mood. The two-hour show consists of David Spencer's Buried, Max Saunders-Singer's Graceland and Simon Stephens' Nuclear War.
First, a quick overview of this theatrical three-course dinner.
Buried is a 50-minute long piece about the experiences of the playwright's grandfather during World War II. Played by James Demaine, the story is told from the perspective of a soldier who's been buried alive. What follows is a chronologically tangled and poetic demonstration of the psychological impacts of war.
Graceland is a dark comedy in which Anthony Cozen's teacher settles in to teach his Form 9 class, as represented by the audience. He's obviously stressed and is behaving increasingly strangely. All too soon we discover why today is the worst day of his life.
Finally, we get Nuclear War, which is a fusion of choreography and abstract verse about the end of the world, a personal view of death, the dissolution of the self and the inevitable forces of entropy that will emotionally, physically and scientifically tear us apart. This is performed by Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp.
The three plays don't share much in common other than a somewhat nihilistic perspective on life. There's a content warning on the way up to the theatre explaining that these plays contain "trauma, PTSD, scenes of a distressing nature, suicide, grief, sexual content & strong language". While I don't want to spoil too many of the twists and turns, the promise of this sign is fulfilled a couple of times over.
There's a lot to like in each of these plays, but while Buried boasts a committed performance from Demaine, and some sparkling writing (especially in the gruesome scenes based around corpse disposal), it eventually feels a little repetitive. The jumbled chronology meant I was concentrating on piecing the story together rather than appreciating the emotions.
On a more practical note, there are moments where Demaine stands directly in front of the audience and delivers a shouty speech under a spotlight, which allows you to see him inadvertently coating the front row with a fine layer of saliva, to the audience's obvious discomfort. Ordinarily, this would be par for the course in a small theatre, but these are, oh let's say, hygiene-focused times...
For me, the highlights came with Graceland and Nuclear War. Anthony Cozens does a neat job semi-improvising his way through Graceland, knowing precisely when to slacken and tighten the reins on the audience. I really loved the slowly shifting tone and the way the pieces oscillate between comedy and tragedy, sometimes within the space of a few seconds. Plus, it's nice to get some genuine belly-laughs sandwiched in between the other plays.
But the best of the three is undoubtedly Nuclear War. This has the honour of being one of the few plays I've ever wanted to watch again immediately after it finished just so I could pick up on more of the nuance. Ditching irrelevancies like characters and narrative, Nuclear War is a weirdly musical piece that doesn't actually contain any music. But it's a confrontational, clearly personal bit of writing that speaks to something absolutely vital about being human... but pinning down exactly what that is maddeningly difficult.
I'm doing a terrible job at describing this, but just trust me that it's ace. Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp are also jaw-droppingly well-rehearsed. The play relies on near-perfect timing and choreography, with no room for error or stumbles. The spell it weaves is so enticing that you almost develop anxiety that one of them will forget their lines and this precious thing will shatter like a snowflake hitting the ground.
I remain on the fence about these triple bill nights. However, shorter plays like these absolutely deserve an audience. Both Graceland and Nuclear War come in at under 30 mins and neither would benefit from being any longer. Where else can you perform these to a paying audience if not during a triple bill? So, while it might be trickier to write about three plays than one, I'll keep coming if the Old Red Lion keeps putting on stuff of this quality.
Nuclear War, Graceland and Buried are at the Old Red Lion until 21 March. Tickets here.