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Skin in the Game at the Old Red Lion Theatre | Review

Skin in the Game
Skin in the Game

Compulsive disorders can be hideously dramatic subjects. Think of Duncan Macmillan’s 2016 hit show People, Places and Things, set in an alcohol rehab clinic. Or of the young Noel Coward’s handling of cocaine addiction in The Vortex almost a century ago. Clear-eyed studies of such socially bleary issues tend to be hard-won through personal exposure, and Paul Westwood’s challenging debut Skin in the Game bears the feel of such intimacy.

Here the abuse does not involve a substance but a process – gambling. As anyone who has worked in the field will tell you, the habit is as heart-breaking and as baffling as the ravages of mood-altering chemicals. Just like drink and drugs, it can take the sufferer away from himself – that’s the whole point, after all – to such an extent that he alienates the rest of the world.

That is what is happening to Westwood’s Jamie, played by the author. We are in an inner suburb of Birmingham and the time is now. Three siblings who have fallen out with each other have to try and fall back in so that they can sell their old father’s flat and pay for his care home.

There is a problem, and you’ve guessed it. Jamie’s gambling habit devours all their proceeds and more. This leads to scenes of savage recrimination between him, his fearsome elder brother Danny and their desperate, potty-mouthed sister Michelle. It also provides the spring for a plotline as wildly macabre as you might expect from Philip Ridley or Patrick Marber.

While this unfolds, Jamie unravels and this becomes the focus of the piece. You might say it upstages the ongoing drama of bitter family conflict. If it does so, this is surely on account of the documentary level of plain truth which Westwood’s writing and performance bring to the study. Here is a young man in the grip of an illness which steals not only his family’s money but also his sanity and his very sense of self.

That seems to be the ongoing crime for which our attention is being sought. The gambling is no mere metaphor but a character in its own right, technically invisible but pulling its victim apart like a cat with a mouse. In this respect, the play is nothing if not polemic. Gambling may get overshadowed by the wilder spectacles of shooting-up and falling-down, but in the awful hierarchies of self-harm, nothing and no-one outranks it.

The play has its early-work symptoms – some indulged mouthiness and gun-toting melodrama – but it hardly lacks for heart. Westwood’s own portrayal of a very literal loser has compassion and subtlety, with Charlie Allen bringing a prowling charisma to big brother Danny, Kathryn O’Reilly touching and unshutuppable as sister Michelle, and the veteran David Whitworth subtle and sinister as the begetter of this troubled brood.

Looking on from the edges of the Old Red Lion’s upstairs room is like stumbling across something grim in the attic but being too gripped to make a dash for it.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Nechells, Summer, 2019.
The family flat isn’t selling.
Dad’s been moved into a care home that needs paying for.
Three estranged siblings meet to fix the problem.
But the reality of the situation is more terrifying than any of them can imagine…

Infused with the spirit of Philip Ridley and Irvine Welsh, Paul Westwood’s debut full-length play is a startling new thriller that lifts the lid on gambling addiction, survival on the edges of society, and what happens when you lie to those who know you best. The production is directed by Clemmie Reynolds (Witness For The Prosecution, County Hall, London; Switzerland, West End).

Charlie Allen (Home, I’m Darling), Kathryn O’Reilly (Our Country’s Good), Paul Westwood (King Charles III), David Whitworth (Orange Tree Associate Artist).

Kathryn O’Reilly: Winner of Best Performance Award at this year’s Birmingham Fest.

20 August – 15 September
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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