Kings of Idle Land, Vault Festival

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by Gregory Forrest

Set against the racial tensions of the 2001 Oldham riots, Kings of Idle Land is a Romeo and Juliet reworking, in which tinnies, crisp packets, and roll-ups become a kind of love potion for two nervous young men.

Conor Hunt’s script is relatable and touching, championing working class voices and gay
experience. It feels directly inspired by If We Got Some More Cocaine – in which a gay couple trapped on a roof chat about the delicate precipice of their relationship – however Kings of Idle Land struggles to reach the same lofty heights.

The comedy of the piece needs tidying up. Teenage humour isn’t exactly known for being
cutting edge, but this goes deep into the structure of the play. Everything is almost there, gesturing towards a great play. Felipe Pacheco’s stunning movement direction communicates a lot in a short space of time, but is underused.

In terms of performances, Shiv Rabheru is excellent as Hammad, running around the space one minute and quietly fiddling with a fag the next. He grows into the role, establishing an essential slow-burn and believable chemistry with Samuel Retford’s Michael. Retford bounces off Rabheru with a refreshing realism, and takes full advantage of his character’s knotty arc. However the script is too vague about their relationship: they seem to be both old friends and new acquaintances. Perhaps this is a fitting metaphor for love, but it keeps us at arms length from the couple we are supposed to be falling for.

The play goes full-Shakespeare midway through with a [spoiler alert] Mercutio moment. As riots envelop this couple there is a genuine sense of social tragedy. With its pressure to conform, frail masculinity, and racist news reports, the world unites in a bid to to pull Michael and Hammad apart. It is an effective ending to an effective play – but one which fails to surprise.

Kings of Idle Land runs through 10 February.

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