You get the flat. You move in. OK, it’s not a great area, but give it time. Before too long there’ll be more people like you in the neighbourhood. Your doctor girlfriend Clare’s moving in with you and by the time you start a family there’ll be baby-friendly cafes with proper coffee and newspaper racks. It’ll all start to feel a little less, you know – and keep your voice down – foreign.
Just for the moment, the immediate problem is your next-door neighbour. Philip. You can’t quite put your finger on it; nothing too awful on the surface – youngish, professional, house-owner, wife, daughter and, since you ask, white. But the man won’t leave you alone. He’s around all the time, welcoming you like hell, full of local knowledge and – bit sinister, this – keeps wanting to take you, Alex – to the new Tom Cruise movie. Girls not invited.
This is the social streetscape of Matt Hartley’s new play, Microcosm. It’s a bold title, seeming to imply some more universal picture behind this tight urban detail. If that’s the promise, then Hartley, director Derek Bond and his cast of four deliver. But not in the predictable manner; far from being a comedy of manners about the embarrassing proximity of middle class pros with the near-cons of the street, it turns into the study of a man progressively isolated by the violence of his own fear. Combined with an over-active imagination and a frankly nasty habit of treating the local copper as a forbear might have treated a butler, this terror changes him overnight from ascendancy to victimhood. He has managed to draw to himself the predicament of the immigrant. Is this what a lot of just-young couples are doing in areas that might have stayed alien but for the tyranny of the housing bubble?
It’s a newspaper of a play – in a good sense – reporting on the specifics of the case without getting too heavy-handed in the leader columns. Dramatic reportage too; truly spooky moments when Hoodies are looming at the windows. Why so menacing towards this household when they’re downright sociable to Philip, engaging him in pavement banter to find out where he got his (aggressively fashionable) sandals? Well, it is, as parents used to say, his own silly fault. Fancy training a camera – two actually – through your windows onto the boys outside when they haven’t actually done anything. All right, they look as if they might be the kind of Boys Outside who just might “do something” through boredom, poverty and testosterone. But there’s a world of difference between these two modes. One thing’s for sure. Behave as if They are suspects and sooner or later They’re likely to justify the billing. As this lot do – and how – as the story lurches its way over to the dark side of the tragicomic street.
The playwright Matt Hartley, who has form with a range of respected outfits from Hull Truck to Theatre503, could get done for demanding mirth with menaces. One moment this brisk, no-interval job is nicking laughs from the notion that Alex killed his Gran to raise the money for the flat; next it is dwelling on A and E doctor Clare’s living – or rather, dying – nightmare of boys bleeding to death from a stabbing to the liver.
He’s on a journey, is Alex, but it’s not a pretty one as he diminishes from good bloke to snivelling snitch. Without the charisma of a Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger or Walter White in Breaking Bad, he doesn’t even qualify for the status of anti-hero. Tricky part for the talented Philip McGinley, powerfully partnered by Jenny Rainsford as the less-than-impressed Clare, and abetted by Christopher Brandon as the hapless New Age Plod.
Hartley leaves loose ends all over the place, and this is very possibly the result of his own liberal impulses as a writer. He’s damned if he’s going to tell us which side we should come down on, and this “us” includes him. Admirable approach, except when the three main narrative strands, initially so intertwined, fall away into their respective irresolutions. I wanted to know what happened, and why, and to whom. Bourgeois of me, I know, and I freely confess to being old-fashioned here. Well, pre-gentrified.
Review by Alana Franks
“Do you think I’m being paranoid? It’s just that of late, I’ve been finding myself thinking that every noise, every vehicle that passes, every person that walks by could be about to do something. And I don’t want to be like that. I want to be being paranoid.”
From the Bruntwood Prize-winning writer of The Bee and the creative team behind Many Moons by Alice Birch and the award-winning Floyd Collins (Southwark Playhouse).
Wed 7 – Sun 25 May, 7.15pm (Sat matinees 2.45pm)
Soho Upstairs – £15 (£12.50)
Directed by Derek Bond @DerekBond
Written by Matt Hartley @MaheHartley
Running time: approx 90 minutes
Age recommendation: 15+ (TBC)
Saturday 10th May 2014