Sunday, 15 November 2020

Review: Black Dark and Broken Wings (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Black Dark and Broken Wings. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

Sadly, this is the final post in this series of reviews, as the JustOut Stays In project has now come to an end. All of the plays in the series are still available to listen to, but the company is taking a short break to start planning projects for the new year. In this post, I’ll be talking about the last two pieces in the series: Black Dark by Aimee Shields and Broken Wings by Alison Scurfield.

Let’s start with Black Dark

Written by Aimee Shields and directed by Lexie Ward, Black Dark is a two-hander about a pair of flatmates who are… I think the phrase is ‘unhappy with their lot’. Sam (played by Ewan Mulligan) is angry/miserable about his ex, who is borderline stalking, watching him at the gym and getting jealous about his relationship with his personal trainer. His flatmate is Lara (played by Jessica Porter) returns home from work with the bombshell announcement that she has unceremoniously quit her job.

Sam and Lara are both approaching thirty (and have been friends since university). They live in an HMO with a landlord who keeps the heating turned down. It’s raining. They’re miserable. They have gin, and some ‘ouzo from the cupboard’.

They sit, drink and grumble about the disappointing direction their lives have taken. And when a power cut hits, they get even more despondent. Sam can’t get over his break-up and his broken heart, and Lara can’t see any prospect of another job.

Sam and Lara’s misery is undoubtedly – and quintessentially – the stuff of millennial angst. Lara bemoans the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder. There’s a mention of screamingly high university fees, and digs at the older generation (here, people in their 50s) who had work and housing handed to them on a plate, and who had reason to believe that hard work could actually reap some reward.

This millennial angst is lampshaded at times through the dialogue. Lara wonders whether, given she may now be unable to pay her rent, she’ll be forced to move back in with her parents. She says that this would be like a ‘suspended adolescence’. And Sam, still clinging to the remnants of his youthful dreams of fame, notes that since he’s now too old to join the ‘27 Club’, he’ll ‘have to live forever’. There’s something painful – but also a bit self-indulgent – in the characters’ belief that their only life options are prolonged adolescence, going out in a blaze of glory, or immortality.

I have to admit, I found myself getting a bit irritated by Lara and Sam, as the dialogue kept coming back to this stereotype of the somewhat entitled and self-absorbed twenty-something, who sees their generation’s woes as unique and unprecedented concerns. I sort of just wanted them to pull themselves together.

However, I think this irritation was kind of the point. Shields’s script is concealing a darker and more unsettling story (completely concealing, in fact) that throws this idea of ‘millennial angst’ into sharp focus. There is a difference between what Sam is going through and what Lara is going through, which we don’t see until right at the end – as, in fact, is also the case for one of the characters. Without giving too much away, the overwhelming message at the end of Black Dark is that sometimes angst isn’t actually just angst. And all credit to Porter and Mulligan for performances that give little away until the final moments.

It’s a bit of a sucker-punch, and it will make you feel bad for being irritated by the ouzo-fuelled moaning.

Speaking of unsettling stories with a bit of a punch… time to turn to the second play I’m looking at today and the final piece in the JustOut Stays In series: Broken Wings.

This final play is – like quite a few of the other pieces in the series – a monologue. Written by Alison Scurfield, directed by Shannon Raftery and performed by Laura Thérèse, Broken Wings takes us into the world – and into the mind – of a young woman who likes tending to vegetable plants.

Our narrator talks us through how she’s learning how to grow and care for her plants, reminding us that the most important thing to remember is not to overwater them. The opening section of the monologue is, on the whole, a bit mundane and apparently harmless. It’s just a girl who’s enjoying growing plants.

There are, of course, some hints that this might not be a completely mundane situation. For instance, there are little suggestions that the narrator is not in a typical domestic environment – she talks of someone called Carla who has been helping her, and it’s clear she lives with a number of other people. She is quite intense about her vegetable growing, and she hopes to perhaps use what she’s grown in cooking, serving meals that will remind her fellow residents of ‘before’ when they used to have ‘dinner parties’.

These hints – along with Thérèse’s performance, which blends a bit of a confrontational tone with an undercurrent of brittle fragility – suggest that the central character is institutionalized, possibly in a care setting (since she seems quite young and in some ways naïve) or possibly in a more punitive environment.

When she discovers her beloved plants have been torn up by birds, the narrator begins to reveal a little more about her situation and her character. And when she starts to talk about chilli peppers, a plant that has an inbuilt ability to cause pain and that grow red (the colour of danger), we start to get a sense of what sort of person we might be dealing with.

I enjoyed the way the character’s story unfolded here. It’s pretty disturbing (but in a way that’s compelling!), and a bit of an unexpected character study. The use of plants as a theme/motif is also interesting and thought-provoking. A combination of Shield’s script and Thérèse’s delivery means the audience gets quite caught up in the monologue as it unfolds. As things become clearer in the final third, it turns out that’s quite an uncomfortable place to be. But it’s too late to stop listening by then…

Broken Wings was a brilliant end to what has been a highly enjoyable series. As you will have heard from my reviews, I’ve been very impressed by all of the pieces I’ve heard, and look forward to seeing what JustOut do next (and I’m still hoping I’ll be able to see a live, in-person performance from them one day…).

Black Dark and Broken Wings are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

You can see my reviews of the other plays in the series by clicking on these links:

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track
A is for… and Accident of Birth
Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth
Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute
Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet
Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron

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