Wednesday, 23 November 2016
by Dennis Kelly
Into The Woods
Once upon a time - even before TLT's jalopy rolled off the conveyor belt - TLT studied Bernard Shaw's St Joan and Will Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the - ahem - predecessor of GCSEs.
Now we're reliably informed Dennis ("Matilda") Kelly's 2008 Pinteresque one-act play DNA is on the syllabus. It's a dark piece, a cross between Lord Of The Flies and Animal Farm for the television age with a bit of Shakespearean cruelty thrown in for good measure.
A gang of kids, led by Jo Tate (a convincingly menancing yet complacent Natasha Heliotis), escape regularly into the woods away from school while enigmatic Phil (Joe Pierson) stays aloof sedately munching on a series of branded snacks and drinks.
This time, though, it's a different kind of rendezvous and bonding for the teenagers. The group has lured a vulnerable schoolboy regarded as a tag-along weakling into a dangerous dare and, albeit accidentally, a nasty outcome.
An actor-musician strumming the guitar with vocals, Felix Mackenzie-Barrow as Matt, introduces this tale with ensemble cast directed by Sean Hollands. The design by Ivan Alexander Todorov veers towards the minimilist with versatile blocks and neon tubes eveloped by smoke and flashlights slicing through the night (lighting Gareth Weaver).
Originally part of the National Theatre's youth theatre scheme, Connections, in 2007, this was the first time we had seen this subtle and supple play about power politics.
Now a set book, there were still gasps from the mainly young audience seeing the play off the page in performance. The production ratchets up the twists, turns and the logic of the ruthlessness and the cornered.
Nevertheless, it struck us, sitting in the stalls, the script's pace might work better in the round than on The Ambassadors' extremely lofty proscenium arch stage. This consideration certainly influences this review, as it made the play feel a little sluggish at times, even if outweighed by some outstanding individual performances.
Like DNA, the piece's building blocks are split into a double strand - the gang's crime and cover up and, linked across to it, the cool, calculating Phil - Pierson with something of the young Malcolm McDowell about him.
A young man of few words, Phil is the theorist who, at arms length, comes up with the cover-up plan where, nobody else, in theory, should get hurt.
His existence is also defined by the voluble Leah (Catrin Walker-Booth). She's equally infatuated and frustrated by him, like an eager acolyte student trying in vain to impress a seemingly indifferent tutor with her knowledge.
Charlotte Law's conscience-stricken Becky, led into lying, finds a natural way with melodrama, as does Shiv Jalota as the unexpected returnee to the pack. Daisy Fairclough also fulfills the promise shown in earlier NYT productions this season as the out-of-control underling Cathy who throws the best-laid plans disastrously off course.
As a whole, this is a solid production which could do at times with a slightly sharper focus. Even so, it's an amber light for a strong cast in a chilling, powerful play.