Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Cockroach" - October 2008

For the first of the National Theatre of Scotland's short "Debuts" series of plays by new writers, Sam Holcroft has written an impressive piece of theatre - for the first three quarters at least. It's full of energy, humour and has a depth to it, but towards the end it suddenly decides it needs a more dramatic conclusion. Sometimes more is definitely less.

Set in a world of after school detentions the audience will be quickly taken back to the world of John Hughes' bratpack films of the 80's. And it's a comfortable place to be, both for audience and writer. The classroom antics ring true and the characters are quickly filled out to the extent that we're interested in the dynamics between them - although I'm not sure it extended to actually caring as much as it possibly needed to.

Slowly we realise that outside the classroom the country is in the grip of war and we watch as it gradually impacts on our characters. The biology revision sessions work well as the central framing device on which a lot of the play's focus hangs, thanks in part to an excellent performance by Meg Fraser as the teacher. The young cast all do well in portraying the frustrations and impulsiveness of teenagers with Ryan Fletcher's Davey and Helen Mallon's Leah particularly impressive.

Vicky Featherstone's direction is at times stunning - particularly the initial confusion as we enter the transformed Traverse 1. Incredibly she manages to make the 'open walled' classroom feel claustrophobic and oppressive at times, really adding to the tensions, while also allowing us to depart the room entirely for a wonderfully imagined scene between Mallon and Frances Ashman's Mmoma. The pacing works well and it held my attention throughout - although as a whole it felt longer than its 1 hour 50 minutes, and comfort-wise it would have benefited from an interval.

The issues and questions raised by the piece are intelligent ones and I felt it a shame that Holcroft wasn't quite brave enough to let them stand on their own. There's a point in the play about 90 minutes in where we have a speech about it being "a weak man's war" and this seemed a very natural place to end but instead we have a final 20 minutes of melodrama that adds little. And I'd have liked to see a little attention paid to what we have lost in previous wars - genetically and culturally.

But this was never short of entertaining and a great start to the "Debuts" season - the others now have a good deal to live up to.

Cockroach runs at the Traverse until Saturday 1st November.

1 Heckle

TheWracked said...

I had similar thoughts about the piece which you have aired here.

This was a strong, powerfully-written, work which managed to encapsulate relevant issues about war and the evolutionary mandate in a very charged environment. I thought the performances and direction were excellent and made very good use of the enclosed space and I really felt involved in the classroom space despite the sparse staging.

The introduction of the uniforms, while a wonderful theatrical image and symbol, caused me to begin to doubt in the underlying dramatic world, though - it seemed to tip away from the internal logic of the school and into a theatricality too at odds with 'reality'. I really wanted to believe in it but it nagged at me as being just too much - and from then onwards I felt the classroom moved from being a tight internal dramatic world into a showcase for metaphor and ideas. The last third in particular felt rushed, throwing out too many moments which seemed tokenistic and almost thesis-led. The characterisation seemed to suffer as a result and I wished that the play had ended earlier.

However, that said, this was still a provocative piece and riddled with excellent performances - and bodes well for the rest of the run. It's refreshing to watch theatre which is big enough and imaginative enough to tackle big issues even if in a small space.