“if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep”

imagesCAUIK3Z3by Anders Lustgarten, the Royal Court Theatre from 15 February 2013

I was expecting to be challenged by the subject matter of “If you don’t let us dream…”  and the bare stage added to the impression of a soapbox performance.  The trouble is that I wasn’t challenged as much as I would have liked.

In this fast-moving ensemble piece of just 75 minutes all the actors acquitted themselves well.  The heart of the play is Susan Brown’s Joan, one of the two actors who play the same character throughout.  Joan – hard up pensioner, long serving nurse, vociferous opponent of the new debt taxes – gets our sympathy straight away although it cleverly turns when she viciously abuses an immigrant who gets the hospital treatment denied to her.  The racism from her was far more shocking than from Damien Molony’s Jason as it was so unexpected.  It was pretty obvious what Jason was, although a credible start at a cockney accent slipped into something akin to South African which was a little imagesironic.   I assumed that his rather ineffectual mate Ryan (Daniel Kendrick) took the fall for him – again – and by the end I still wasn’t sure if his guilt was for what he did to McDonald himself or what was done in his company.

That was much of my problem with the play – I wanted to know more than we were permitted to see.  The targets were largely easy and obvious ones, the radical solutions to austerity and debt  have been widely written about.  Yes I see the horror in incentivising crime and poverty, making it target driven but it didn’t take it anywhere.  The flash of an abandoned child, a pensioner in poverty… let’s be honest we’re getting hardened to these stories.  It wasn’t enough to make me angry.  The sole opposer of the bonds – and yes, what are bonds? – was a slightly ditsy entrepreneur who stood the team chocolate rather than stand by her principles.

Where the play came to life was when the politics and humour combined.  Politics IS farce after all and it glides the message home in a way that didacticism doesn’t.  When the lines are sharp and funny there are moments when the show takes off and flies.  It made me realise what it might have been and I was sorry that it wasn’t.

“It takes a true revolutionary to make it through an affinity group”

“I’d rather gargle with Michael Gove’s urine”

“I cannot believe, as a revolutionary automatist movement, that we have to abide by Health and Safety legislation”

Interesting that these three quotes which came straight to mind are all from Part Two, where the characters and the words had a chance to stretch out and develop a little more.

The short sharp scenes gave little chance to connect emotionally – especially not knowing if you’d see that character again.  I read the playscript on the way home and found some scenes incredibly moving on the page which I hadn’t on stage.  McDonald’s (Lucien Msamati) Shona monologue about his family for example.

Moments stood out; Joan’s racist ranimagest, the battery acid, the extension of bonds to reproduction and rape – they were powerful and engaging but generally the targets are predictable and the characters too shallowly written to impact consistently.  One image that stayed was a simple one – the debt collection box – incessantly beeping, light flashing.  Pay up or go mad.

The actors changed their clothes, shoes, hair and hats between roles – and I wonder if they needed to?  I’ve seen multi roles played without it and the acting was more than enough to differentiate.  Maybe it’s deliberate that everyone ended up looking so similar in every role, we’re all in it together after all – but maybe not.  If not, then the suits should be sharper – and the shoes sharper still – and the radicals less clichéd.  And that despite some of the worse items of knitwear I’ve seen in a very long time.  Since an 80s sit-in at any rate – which says it all.

I’m not a great fan of the Pickfords School of Acting – it can break the flow to have the actors lifting and shifting, especially when they play a number of characters.  I find it jolts me out of the text into wondering which person they are when they bring on a table. It’s a feature of this stripped down style that everything happens within the bounds of the stage but sometimes it is just too distracting.  The movement of the actors changing costume catches the eye and I found in one case it pulled me out of a particularly intense moment.  That was a shame and given that the actors are behind the clothes rails surely it wouldn’t have been such a compromise for them to have been totally out of sight?

index1The final scenes of the preparation for the trial could have come from a  totally different production.  Wordier, longer, much more of a story than a series of snapshots and it was crying out for a second act.  Where were the new solutions, the fresh ideas and the new leaders?  Not here and it left the questions unanswered.

I was expecting a polemic, a rant, a feel of agit-prop and by hell that’s what I got.  What I didn’t get was a well-rounded and complete piece of theatre.  It was a good way down the road but while I left feeling thoughtful I wasn’t angry or outraged, there was a lingering sense that there should have been something more, of potential unrealised.  I can’t argue with the sentiments – I agree with pretty much all of it but I wanted more than validation.  I wanted to be pushed towards new thought, new ideas – and most of all I wanted to be entertained.  It is theatre after all.

Or maybe that was the whole point.