Home » London Theatre Reviews » Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley at Soho Theatre | Review

Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley at Soho Theatre | Review

Mouthpiece. Credit Roberto Ricciuti.
Mouthpiece. Credit Roberto Ricciuti.

You should go see Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece at Soho Theatre (running until 4th May) if only to catch a rare glimpse of one of the great Hamlets in the making. Lorn Macdonald’s performance as artistic teenager, Declan, living a chaotic existence of hand-to-mouth poverty in contemporary Edinburgh is breath-taking. This 2015 graduate of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is a talent to behold: Macdonald combines pitch-perfect delivery with needle-sharp comic timing and a simultaneously explosive and understated physicality to connect the audience to the pathos and dawning rage of his character and all its, and the play’s, stories.

Both performers in this contemporary two-hander are impressive but Macdonald steals the show, which – given the play is about his story being ‘stolen’ to placate the frustrations and ambitions of blocked middle-class, middle-aged, playwright Libby (Neve McIntosh) – feels rather apt.

From Shaw’s Pygmalion to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, many have explored themes of appropriation and pseudo-authenticity. Hurley’s work, transferring from Edinburgh’s esteemed Traverse Theatre to The Soho Theatre, places this trope squarely amongst the consequences of prolonged 21st-century British austerity – when the youth centres have shut and the only places of inspiration can be found by trespassing on urban rooftops. Sorrowfully in the final act, Declan asks at the box office of the theatre (where his voice has been used to give resonance to Libby’s drama but not security to his own life) ‘I’m sorry, it’s just someone telt me these places like this were free ’cause they’re for everyone.’’ The ‘empathy machine’ of theatre as Declan throws back in the face of Libby, who has chosen dramatic imperative over human compassion, is in full effect throughout the play’s second half.

Director Orla O’Loughlin’s production gets a big laugh when Libby describes her work MOUTHPIECE on its opening night at the Traverse Theatre, as ‘meta’. Indeed, the play walks a fine line between offering many insider nods about the theatrically-versed to the same cultured classes of its likely audience whilst exposing the hypocrisy of ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’ yet at the same time silencing and ignoring their inconvenient and messy desires.

This play’s story and its cast are powerful. One can’t help but wonder if Hurley could step away for a minute and let the performances breathe on their own, how much more connection with his work we could enjoy? In the script, Hurley sets out stage directions with the kind of precision that drove Eugene O’Neil’s directors mad from authorial micro-management. Mouthpiece relies on projected text to take us from the world of constructed drama to beholding actual drama. However, it also uses the projections as a more conventional captioning device, like a TV drama locating us in a particular setting. Such literalism is unnecessary and distracting from its more central role of Libby’s authorial authority. If the projected text is a character itself, it behaves inconsistently.

The first half of the play is engaging but already fairly ‘talky’ and doubly so with its knowing ‘meta’ disclosures from the playwright into a microphone lecturing on dramatic construction. The projected text is resonant when used sparingly and with consistent logic, but it becomes overpowering when it doesn’t trust the theatrical drama to show rather than tell. There is a key moment just before the midpoint when the characters dance on the roof. Instead of letting us sit with the rising drama for a minute, the text overtakes the action almost immediately. Whilst the intrusion is no doubt deliberate in order to illustrate Libby’s grabby and greedy story-telling, it simply misses the chance to let the audience be seduced by and, therefore complicit in, the stage drama for just a moment before the heavy hammer of “she’s writing this” comes down. Another 60 seconds of joyous rising action before the projected text arrived to crush it, would have made the scene all the more poignant and potent.

The second half of Mouthpiece is glorious theatre with great energy and clever staging. Weaving together confrontational threads into an uncomfortable and truthful fabric, we are brought to a fine dramatic climax whilst eschewing the very concept of dramatic climax. The brilliance of O’Loughlin’s direction, Kai Fischer’s clever design and Macdonald’s and McIntosh’s performances all come together wonderfully. The first half, strong as it is, would benefit from the same purposefulness and delineation of the author’s world from the ‘real’ world (perhaps re-evaluating the sound and lighting for the ‘microphone scenes’ to give a change to the rest of the drama). This would also afford greater connection and sympathy with Libby’s motives that risk being over-simplified.

Despite being a bit too liberal with the projected text, this play – about the conflict between elegant story-telling (longing to be described as ‘real’) and the messy reality of everyday tragedy (caused by the blunt inhumanity and self-importance of the politically and culturally powerful) – is a thought-provoking and engaging theatrical experience. Mouthpiece is definitely worth seeing.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Salisbury Crags. Twilight. A woman takes a step forward into the air. A teenage boy pulls her back. Two lives are changed forever.

Libby whiles away her days in New Town cafes and still calls herself a writer. Declan is a talented young artist struggling with a volatile home. As they form an uneasy friendship, complicated by class and culture, Libby spots an opportunity to put herself back on track, and really make a difference.

Frank, unflinching and threaded with unexpected humour, Mouthpiece takes a look at two different sides of a city that exist in ignorance of one another, and asks whether it’s possible to tell someone else’s story without exploiting them along the way.

Running time 90 minutes
Twitter #MouthpiecePlay, @sohotheatre

Writer Kieran Hurley
Director Orla O’Loughlin
Libby – Neve McIntosh
Declan – Lorn Macdonald

Tue 2 Apr – Sat 4 May 2019


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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