Correspondence, Old Red Lion Theatre

It’s 2011. Ben and Jibreel are typical teenaged boys – obsessed with video games, worried about girls, school, friends and family. They regularly meet on X-box Live for lengthy gaming sessions and banter, though they’ve never met. Ben lives in Stockport and Jibreel in Daraa, Syria. As Ben learns about the increasing unrest, Jibreel begins to distance himself. Ben eventually takes action to fight the tyrannical regime with the help of a dubious sidekick, but as he carries out his mission, his mental health collapses. Though Correspondence touches on hot-button issues, it has a convoluted, disconnected plot that doesn’t give enough attention to any of the issues it confronts.

This is a play in three completely different parts, none of which flow into the other or have much of a thread. The first third of the play centres on Ben (Joe Attewell) and Jibreel’s (Ali Ariaie) friendship, with the deterioration of Syria discussed in between laddish chatting. Ben charmingly interviews about Syrian life for the school newspaper, and Jibreel wants Ben to help him with his English as they blast their way through Call of Duty. There are plenty of lovely, intimate moments in Lucinda Burnett’s script. We also meet Ben’s divorced parents Joanna Croll and Mark Extance) and pint-sized bully Harriet (Jill Mcausland) at his school, but Ben and Jibreel’s scenes are the focus, and the best ones in the play. It’s a shame the play didn’t follow this path, as it could have a powerful, humanising view of Syrian refugees who are victim of the war.

Unfortunately, Ben’s decision to go to Syria and find Jibreel after he stops showing up for the X-box sessions shifts the action solely to Ben’s fracturing brain. His short trip is sparsely detailed and neglects Jibreel as a character. The same happens in the final third of the play, where hardly anything happens after we suddenly find him back in Stockport. These could be completely separate plays with mental health as the focus, but instead, there’s no depth – just passing comments that feel forced.

The performances are good, though occasionally self-conscious during the sections of Burnett’s dialogue that feel artificial to the moment. Mcausland’s performance is excellent, aided by a clear and touching character journey. Croll and Extance have some great moments of prickly conflict, and Ariaie and Attewell have some gorgeous tender moments over their gaming headsets.

Bethany Well’s dominant white circle of a set looks great with Christopher Nairne’s lighting; it creates some good images but doesn’t contribute much to the story or its excessive number of messages. Blythe Stewart directs, but struggles with the muddle that is the script. 

It’s a most frustrating experience when a play clearly has loads of potential but doesn’t really come close to achieving it. Correspondence, despite good performances and some excellent stand-alone moments, struggles to hold itself together. Lucinda Burnett’s script tries to force too many unrelated issues into 90 minutes, where one will do to create a much more interesting story.

Correspondence runs through 2nd April at Old Red Lion Theatre. 

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