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Debris by Dennis Kelly at Theatre N16 | Review

Debris by Dennis Kelly
Debris by Dennis Kelly

Well, it wouldn’t do for the show to be called Debris and for the performance space to be neat and tidy. Covered with sand and stones, there’s a television set on the floor, a single bicycle wheel with no frame to be seen, a toy tricycle and miscellaneous other items. As siblings Michael (James Anthony-Rose) and Michelle (Louise Waller) are to be found on the floor to begin with, their clothes are quickly dirtied. The character names do not seem to matter too much: if I recall correctly, they were not even explicitly mentioned during the play.

The siblings are evidently left to their own devices, on account of an alcohol-dependent father taken by his own hand, and a mother who died after giving birth to Michelle, the younger of the two on-stage characters. (Or, if Michelle is to be believed, their mother died before giving birth, so Michelle had to push through what was by then a corpse in order to be born.) Michelle has different versions of exactly how their mother died, set out over the course of the play, and some are more probable than others. For Michael, his story centres on an abandoned baby boy he discovered, and the subsequent steps he takes to try to look after him.

These are youngsters for whom there is neither a Sky nor a Netflix account to keep them amused (incidentally, I don’t have either myself) – instead, their vivid imaginations see to it that they are able to spin story after story, but in their sibling rivalry, the tales become increasingly exaggerated. Both, therefore, become unreliable narrators, and it is, therefore, difficult to decipher which parts are the unadulterated truth, and which have been embellished – and to what extent.

One would be forgiven for thinking that the best way to appreciate what goes on is to sit back and enjoy the two play their game of ‘any story you can tell, I can tell another one better’. But the stories, however hyperbolic, reveal a bleak world that the pair inhabit, such that a sense of discomfort is easier to establish than a sense of enjoyment. The seating configuration – in the round, or more precisely, in the square – almost perpetuates the concept that lives of hardship and poverty are inescapable for Michael and Michelle. More than that, whichever way they turn, someone is observing them, as though they are never well and truly alone.

In the physical movements of the characters, the on-stage sand is kicked up in the air, creating stage smoke, which I suspect will have affected the actors more than the audience, as they stand and speak their lines breathing in sand particles. As there are neither set nor costume changes to worry about between scenes, the action is pretty much continuous. There is some repetition in the dialogue for dramatic effect, but this is not overdone.

Some suspension of disbelief is required – there aren’t any details about how they are able to put food in their mouths (there’s no indication, for instance, that either of them are holding down jobs of any kind), or any form of external support. But they both live to fight another day – and another, and another – and despite being disturbing viewing in places, this is an engrossing if slightly harrowing piece of theatre.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

In Debris, Dennis Kelly finds humour and pathos in a spectacularly dysfunctional family unit. The play’s analysis of struggling young people has acquired a new, profound relevance against the backdrop of a polarized, screen-obsessed nation veering towards right-wing politics.

Michael – James Anthony-Rose
Michelle – Louise Waller

Writer – Dennis Kelly
Director – Alex Prescot
Set Design – Hugo Aguirre
Producer – Dominic McGovern
Sound Design – Alex Prescot
Costume Design – Hugo Aguirre

Battered Soul Theatre presents the 15th Anniversary of
by Dennis Kelly
Theatre N16, 5 Ashley Rd, London, N17 9LJ
October 21st-25th 2018 (19:00)
Running time: 70 minutes
Age guidance: 16+


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