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Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Brink , Orange Tree Theatre ★★★

‘The Brink’ marked my first visit to the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond; it also marked my first visit to the work of fellow Welshman, Brad Birch. The play follows ‘Nick’ (Ciarán Owens), a teacher at a local comprehensive school, who, as the title of the play suggests, is basically on the brink of some kind of nervous breakdown. Throughout the play, we (or he), aren’t too sure what mental illness he’s living with. Is it depression, anxiety, stress or has he just been caught up in the ‘mess’ of a ‘modern’ world? And that’s a major part of my problem with the play. Unlike Nielson’s delirious Dissocia, or James Graham’s problematic Privacy, I was left, literally on the brink, with no resolution or conclusion.

But the ‘brink’ also represents an actual geographical space in the school fields where in Nick’s dreams, lies a hidden secret; some sinister presence that results in quite graphic visions of destruction and death.  The headmaster (Vince Leigh), who confides in Nick, that below the brink lay an unexploded World War Two bomb, confirms his vision. Delirious that his dreams may well be an apocalyptic actuality of the future, it causes major malfunction in all areas of Nick’s life, leaving him on an empty stage of cinders.  Up to this point, I could empathize with him all the way. Were all these crazy encounters with the sinister headmaster reality or just figments of his irrational state of mind? Was there really a ‘bomb’, was there really a school...? 

As a fellow playwright, the one question that has always scared me is ‘what are you trying to say in your play?’. In my younger days, I was always quick to reply with a cocky ‘isn’t that up to the audience to tell me?!’. Now in my forties, after an unexpected and unsuccessful suicide attempt, my earlier work makes sense. I guess that’s why I could empathize so well with poor Nick, who clearly needed psychological support. Not once in the play, was this support offered; not from his workplace or his partner. We were left to ultimately laugh at his demolition and final destruction, which is why I question the message or meaning of the play. If Birch had followed Nielson’s pro forma, with a follow up, second act diagnosis or resolution, then maybe I’d have a higher appreciation of the value of the 80 minutes I’d witnessed. Without it, it did feel unfinished, and almost a comedy cop-out of such an important issue.

As a theatrical piece, it was well received. Clever, quick and comic dialogue fast paced and beautifully choreographed by Carolina Valdés. It’s just a shame that Birch has not yet ventured over the brink, to possibly answer or address some of his brilliant ideas.

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