Grace Chapman’s new play is a thoughtful and oftentimes charming domestic drama about humanity, purpose and acceptance that makes us re-examine our notions of duty and how it, along with the national myth of ‘British fair-play’, are hollow conceits. Through protagonist Cath (Julia Barrie), Chapman brings us to the moment when a headline turns into a human being and invites us to wonder what our real duties are.
Director Nicholas Pitt commences the action dramatically with black-out lighting, using the Pleasance’s intimate studio space well. Despite the front row being mere inches from the stage, this production observes the fourth wall. The staging gives a hearty nod to British kitchen-sink drama conventions but – somewhat surprisingly, given the subject matter – offers less angst and more warmth than the Angry Young Men. Whilst Chapman’s writing may confront or dislodge certain ideas about hospitality, scarcity or xenophobia, the experience of attending this play is thankfully not itself challenging. Engaging, rather than immersive, Chapman has set this story of the transformation of an ‘ordinary’ middle-aged Northern single-mum amongst the 21st-century global refugee crisis to which her government has responded with deliberate hostility. Whilst the context is unmistakably political, Chapman’s work is not a polemic.
With Cath (conveyed excellently by Julia Barrie) firmly at the centre of the story, this 90-minute play is the story of a moral coming-of-age in a society forced to regard compassion as an unaffordable luxury. The longings and resentments of estranged son, Jamie (Brian Fletcher), of course, evoke wider social tension but tell us an emotionally-powerful family story in its own right. Fletcher’s performance is outstanding. He embodies Jamie as likeable and reasonable whilst not sugar-coating his immaturity, frustration or entitlement. The subtlety of Fletcher’s characterisation is essential to the success of this production because he enables the audience to sympathise and identify with his longings; affording us identification and sympathy that is far more affecting than any drift towards caricature would deliver.
Likewise, Robert Hannouch’s depiction of young Syrian refugee, Adnan, is thankfully not hagiographical. The comedic moments delivered by fish-out-of-water and odd-couple/roommate business offer immediate human connection. The tension between an actual son competing for his mother’s attention against a surrogate son gives this work an emotional depth far greater than a bellowing broadside or non-stop confrontation with atrocity would. Hannouch’s performance, which doesn’t skirt over Adnan’s trauma but doesn’t major on it, is strong. The distinct lack of immediate chemistry or connection with Barrie’s Cath is in many respects the point. However, there is something about the scale of Hannouch’s rendition of Adnan that feels like it belongs in a larger theatre.
Set in contemporary Bradford with the action occurring in two interiors, Pitt’s direction is largely naturalistic but is by no means realism run rampant. Scenes and moods are changed with dance-inspired montages choreographed by movement director Dan Canham. These episodes are theatrical but not stagey and work well in the small space. Should the play transfer to a bigger venue they would scale-up well.
Don’t Look Away is a wonderful, warm piece of writing that features excellent performances and top-notch production design but on occasion somehow feels a little like it’s telling its story in the wrong medium. The play is about the transformation of a lone woman struggling to act morally in a society that no longer even pretends to value decency. In order for Cath’s journey to flow rhythmically, the snappy and tight device of a short play somewhat over-compresses her experience. Whilst the play is economically-written and has absolutely no flabby moments, one wonders if Chapman might be able to create a masterpiece if she were given the latitude of a longer multi-act structure or, dare I say, a film budget.
The publicity material majors just a bit too much on the political context as protagonist and Adnan’s experience rather than the more powerful story of Cath and how her needs and drives emerge in opposition to dominant social forces. The London stage needs well-written, beautifully-acted stories with women at the centre and this play is one of them. Do go see Don’t Look Away and invite your friends to join you – but you may want to let them know they’re in for an evening of delightful drama and, rather refreshingly, not a diatribe.
Review by Mary Beer
2015. Bradford. Adnan, a young asylum seeker, enters a community centre covered in flour & asking for help. He finds Cath, a middle-aged cleaner, who reluctantly lets him stay in her son’s empty bedroom. A split-second decision which will change her life forever. Cath becomes increasingly entangled in Adnan’s asylum claim and, as her frustrations rise, so does her desire to take action, until her estranged son Jamie returns home and wants his room back. Determined to give both Jamie and Adnan a home Cath’s house becomes a microcosm of British society, where there isn’t enough to go around, and blame is quickly passed.
Don’t Look Away shifts focus away from the government’s response to the international refugee crisis to our individual power to make a difference; a powerful, timely production exploring the impact of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ on those who witness it.
When confronted with a human face of the refugee crisis, a cleaner tries to find balance between her family and philanthropy, between pragmatism and the need to do good
@NOVAEtheatre | #DontLookAway | www.idlemotion.co.uk/novae-theatre
Running Time: 80mins | Suitable for ages 12 and above
Written by Grace Chapman Directed by Nicholas Pitt
Movement direction by Dan Canham Sound design by Jon Ouin
Set design by James Donnelley Lighting design by Greg Cebula
Produced by Ellie Simpson
Julia Barrie (Cath), Brian Fletcher (Jamie), Robert Hannouch (Adnan)
NOVAE theatre Present:
Don’t Look Away
Written by Grace Chapman | Directed by Nicholas Pitt | Movement by Dan Canham
16 April – 18 May, UK Tour and Pleasance Islington run