He(art), Theatre N16

jack-gogarty-alex-reynolds-by-jesse-night

Chalk and cheese Alice and Rhys debate whether to purchase a painting in an art gallery. Simultaneously, siblings Kev and Sam hatch a plan to fund a life-saving procedure for their ill mum that the NHS won’t cover. Running at just over an hour, writer Andrew Maddock fits in the nature of art and its criticism, public health, social class, poverty and loyalty across two very different sets of characters in the same neighbourhood. It’s a lot for 65 minutes and whilst it’s not enough time to fully explore these themes, the play doesn’t feel crowded. Though the direction and performances are intuitive and finely tuned, Maddock’s outstanding verse poetry and use of non-naturalism is sorely missed in this surprising diversion from his trademark style.

The episodic script has a great sense of rhythm and pace, though to get stuck into these characters’ worlds, it needs to be lengthened. The two intertwined stories that only intersect in the final scene both need more time to grow in order to foster audience empathy. Maddock has created a group of compelling characters that naturally generate conflict, but they deserve more depth and detail. The issues he touches on are just that; they also are not give the time they need to make a properly powerful statement.

The four characters are the driving force of the play. The contrast between middle-class gallery curator Alice (Alex Reynolds) and her window cleaner boyfriend Rhys (Jack Gogarty) is unconventional and punchy, as is the contrast between them and the brother and sister scrabbling around a Wembley estate with plenty of time, but not much else. Even though Rhys is working class, his girlfriend educates him in her middle class arts and culture – their first scene debating the nature of art and its value is delightful.

Rhys is the most interesting character of the four, with Sam, an androgynous young woman with learning and social difficulties, not far behind. They both inhabit in-between worlds that don’t quite align with those around them. There is certainly potential for incorporating more backstory from these two. Maddock has an exceptional ability to create working class characters who express themselves through poetry, and these would certainly have benefited from the music and vocabulary that comes with that style.

Director Niall Phillips keeps the actors on stage the entire time, inside a boxing ring that’s a nicely subtle metaphor for daily struggle. His set also includes an array of artworks on the theatre’s walls, but these looked quickly improvised and unskilled – an unfortunately lost opportunity to comment on the play with visual art. His transitions are affectionate and sweet, a timely respite from the near-constant tension of the story. It’s great that there is a level of stylisation present, though there is more scope for contrasting staging between the two pairs of characters.

Maddock’s skill of creating engaging, detailed characters is very much on show here, but he shortchanges them by denying them the language he has given to those in his last two plays. His ability to write such incredible poetry sets him apart from other early-career writers and whilst He(art) has a great story to tell, it doesn’t feel as special as his previous works.

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