New writing at the Corpus Playroom leaves JAMES STANIFORTH pleasantly surprised but still waiting for his coffee.
Corpus Playroom, 25th-29th October, 9pm, £5-6
Directed by Ami Jones
Plank is a cunning and ambitious production that offers a short, sharp insight into a world of spiralling social relations. Darkly comic with an experimental edge, this new work from Harry Michell presents us with a view of the human condition that delivers an explosive and disturbing payoff.
Set in an unnamed café in an unnamed town, Plank is disconcerting from the outset. Old men yammer covertly in corners, women devour cocktails to escape from reality, lovers bicker over Chai Tea lattes. The stage is a microcosm of dysfunction, the characters cramped around four small tables, each holding secrets to their chests. The dialogue exchanged is initially banal, but as the play progresses the script becomes infused with an irresistible, chaotic energy as each individual is slowly, skilfully prised apart.
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” says Beckett, and Plank in general sticks to this maxim. Michell’s writing is at its funniest when it’s dark. Spitfire exchanges of dialogue allow us to see deeper and deeper into the minds of the characters and the effect is both amusing and distressing. The laughter this draws out of the audience is more nervous than hearty.
Michell’s complex and challenging use of overlapping speech also sets Plank apart from the norm. At points the play descends into a cacophony of voices with characters frantically speaking over one another, diverting the audience’s attention, finishing each other’s sentences. This Pinteresque interplay, for the most part well-handled by the cast and director, enables us to see the connections by which the unwitting individuals are linked. It also fuels the production with an energy which intensifies over time, meaning that when the climax hits, we’re left reeling.
Whilst this is a deeply compelling production, Plank is by no means perfect. The script at points seems strained; untactful attempts at a lighter shade of comedy become disruptive during the latter stages of the play. Occasionally the joins connecting lines of speech felt rusty and unnatural rather than effortless, for which the cast must also take responsibility. For a play so reliant upon the pace and flow of language these flaws stood out uncomfortably. Patches of speech between couples in the early periods were also overly drawn out and felt too laboured, which stalled the potential momentum of the script.
However, what sets this play above other, more mediocre undergraduate efforts is simple: it’s smarter. Plank engages with contemporary problems of language and communication with an assured and original voice and openly challenges its audience to consider these questions. The connections made between characters are drawn subtly but effectively, so that whilst the finale is shocking it is also satisfying. This is all the more impressive given the play’s short runtime.
Crucially, both the cast and crew seem to understand the point being made and overall the play is acted with flair, each actor having moments of excellence. Plank offers a rare and invigorating experience as an audience member and the unusual experience as a critic of wanting to see more work by this group.