At the heart of this show is an interesting and relevant concept. Mick (Patrick Driver) and Sylv (Charlie Hardwick) are an odd couple. They live in a small place up in Northumberland and their home is a form of refuge, a safe place, for the lost, angry local kids who are struggling with loneliness and alienation from their peers and their parents. Such as Dummey (Rylan Nolan), for example, a young lad who after getting in a fight at school falls under the wing of Mick who he sees as a father-figure, a man who is interested in what he says and cares about him.
Right off, we have an idea that challenges us. Just what do we think of adults, and in particular men, who are enthusiastic about the company of children? Men who are playful, affectionate even, when they can clearly see a kid is lonely and traumatised. Such behaviour strikes to our fears of sexual pests and paedophiles, yet it also challenges our views on masculinity – why can’t men care for kids?
It is this grey area, this ambiguity, that you sense this debut from writer Philip Correia wants to explore. There’s promise here but it doesn’t quite fulfil is potential. Often this play feels unsure of itself, perhaps insecure of its convictions, and, as a result, often ends up muddled and battling with a meandering plot.
The show starts off with a lot of promise. Director Jonny Kelly has the play firmly anchored in Sylv and Mick’s front room – an odd place where the door is always unlocked, alcohol seems freely available to even the teenagers that make themselves welcome in this house, and the TV channels seem stuck on either news reports of the Iraq War or pornography. It is certainly a strange world, and clearly inappropriate. But is this grooming?
Well, it’s hard to tell as the play loses focus and we end up wandering through too many scenes with low-level conflict and almost non-existent stakes, such as escaped pet pythons and a bit of flirting amongst the teenagers. The characters seem to lack purpose and direction, which means none of them have much to work with and we end up in the realms of caricatures with promiscuous teenage girls, their obligatory overweight friends, and sulky teenage boys.
There are moments that capture that interesting grey area though with oddball Mick’s encouragement of the party lifestyle, and these contrasts well with signs that he genuinely cares and has a real concern for the welfare and future of the children who cross his path. Mick’s motives are not obvious, nor clear. But it seems this production is keen to avoid anything too lingering, sinister or uncomfortable. As if the show itself is a little afraid to delve further into this territory. It’s hard to say that there are any signs of inappropriate behaviour, language or touching even though the show clearly wants to compel you to think there is.
The primary concern though is with the plot and its lack of escalating tension, which means the play and its characters have to perform all sorts of sudden and inexplicable contortions to create a dramatic climax. Shouting comes out of nowhere and threats of violence from outside the sanctuary of this front room aren’t followed through.
There is promise here and it’s great to see new playwrights prepared to tackle such tricky subject matter. But for it to be translated into a cracking production, that plot needs to be tighter and it would have been great to see more conviction with the difficulties of this topic.
Theatre 503, Battersea Park Road, London, to September 23rd
Tickets from £12
All production images by Nick Rutter