Sometimes, when I go to the theatre, I leave wondering what exactly I have seen. Often this feeling is associated with me believing I might be a bit dense and missed something obvious, but occasionally, whilst I’m not sure exactly what has happened, I know that I have just witnessed a really great production and been thoroughly entertained. This was the case with Peter Hamilton’s Playground at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.
In Victoria Park Bow, two policeman are investigating a series of gruesome murders. Detective Inspector Mitchell (Dan Maclane) and DC Birch (Christopher James Barley) are perplexed. Children are being seized in the park, decapitated and left with an Enid Blyton book on their chest, open on page 100. The detectives really have no idea what to do – clues and suspects being amazingly short on the ground – so decide to try something pretty radical in order to find their man. In another part of the park, painter and decorator Stuart (Simon Every) is talking with teenager Tamsin (Laura Garnier). They are both patients of psychiatrist Dr Ross and seem to get along very well despite their backgrounds. Stuart is a nice working class lad whilst Tamsin is a middle class communist intent on bringing a new order to the world. In another part of the park, Canary Wharf night cleaner, Danny (Richard Fish) is reading a Famous Five book when a woman rushes in to the edge of the lake. Intent on her own purpose, Carolyn (Josie Ayers) doesn’t notice Danny initially but he quickly strikes up a conversation with her and they discover a shared appreciation of literature. Danny and Carolyn meet up with Tamsin and Stuart and the four of them set up a book club outside Izzy’s Cafe, run by the formidable Bella (Sarah Quist) who carries a large serrated edged knife in her bag. With another decapitated child found and a range of potentially mentally unstable suspects in the park, the two detectives are in a race against time to find the murdered and bring his or her reign of terror to an end.
Playground is an amazing show with a wonderfully talented cast. Every one of them was so believable in their respective role and gave a great performance. My absolute favourite was Richard Fish as Danny – a dreamer with a pretty sad life who just wanted friends and some form of normality and was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make this happen. Richard was an absolute marvel and by the end, Danny was not only potentially the most mentally unstable of the group but was also the most, by usual societal definitions, normal. Anyone that can analyse an Islington dinner party as thoroughly as Danny did is definitely not lacking in the thought department. Richard was outstanding from start to finish and delivered a beautiful character superbly.
Turning to the non-actor parts of the show, I absolutely loved the set designed by Director Ken McClymont. The use of scaffolding for the playground area with blown up covers of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books behind was inspired and triggered many happy memories for members of the audience. That they are now associated with decapitated children is only a minor negative. It’s not often that my companion and I sit and look at each other in a bemused fashion when a play finishes, but with Playground we certainly did, then discussed the production for the majority of the journey home. Writer Peter Hamilton has created a real conundrum of a show which, by the end left many questions unanswered and really challenged the perception of definitions of mental health issues. At the end of the day, what is normality? If a man looking for friends starts up a book club reading Enid Blyton is that wrong? If a girl wants to overthrow the perceived natural order of society despite every advantage she has had in life, is that a mental health issue. If a woman wants to commit suicide should she be given drugs or help? If another man enjoys dressing as a woman then where is the harm? And while we are on the subject of questions, what exactly was the relationship between the police officers and why did Bella lie about her background? All of these questions are raised and if not fully answered, provide real food for thought for the audience. The script is really great and is peppered throughout with some genuine laugh out loud moments that, given its subject matter, ensure the story doesn’t ever get too dark to cope with.
Ultimately, Playground is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you like murder mysteries where everything is cut and dried by the end then this may not be the play for you but if you like an intriguing tale about people, and the realities of mental illness, then – although you may feel frustrated and a bit bemused at the end – thanks to a great script, excellent direction and a first rate cast, you will leave the theatre feeling thoroughly entertained.
Review by Terry Eastham
By Peter Hamilton
Directed By Ken Mcclymont
Presented By Clockschool Theatre
‘There isn’t going to be no revolution. I’ve told you: you can’t change the world.‘
Playground is about the fragmented or broken society. It’s about the lost, the damaged and the disappointed. About rattling about in the nightmarish modern world. It takes the form of a murder mystery. It takes place in a park. Someone’s been decapitating children with a fret-saw. Someone’s been reading Enid Blyton. Something has gone badly wrong.
Peter Hamilton’s gruesomely comic follow-up to his hit play Bridlington reunites him with acclaimed director/designer and Old Red Lion legend Ken McClymont (Mugs Arrows, No Picnic, Beak Street) in a story of things falling apart beneath the swing-set.
Two detectives struggle to solve a spate of child murders in Victoria Park, East London. Small bodies found beheaded with a Famous Five novel lying open on top of them. Suspects are readily available: previous and current patients at Bow Road Psychiatric Unit; Danny, a night cleaner at Canary Wharf; Stuart, a rough-sleeper from Walthamstow; private school drop-out-turned-Communist Tamsin; or frayed and failed Carolyn who teeters on the brink of another suicide attempt. Then there’s Bella, the proprietor of canal-side Drop-In Cafe, who just happens to go about with a ferocious looking knife in her shoulder-bag.
CAST: Richard Fish – Danny, Dan MacLane – Mitchell, Christopher James Barley – Birch, Simon Every – Stuart, Laura Garnier – Tamsin, Josie Ayers – Carolyn and Sarah Quist – Izzy
13th October – 7th November 2015
Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm
Saturday matinees 3pm
Sunday matinees 2pm
(No evening performance Saturday 31st October)
Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins (inc interval)
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
London, EC1V 4NJ