“You can’t serve someone a cup of gravy”
What a difference a year makes. Last summer saw Rob Hayes’ play Step 9 (of 12) premiere somewhat off the radar at the New Britannia Theatre (above the better known pub of the same name by Victoria Park), but it has now taken a giant step to receive a new production in the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2 and snag one of The Inbetweeners for the main role into the bargain. I say this like I know what it means but I have to tell you that I’ve never seen the show and it has languished in my low priority list on Lovefilm for ages now – though I am now given to understand that it is very popular (I don’t think those autograph hunters were there for me…)!
Blake Harrison is that actor, who takes on the role of Keith here, a man recovering from alcohol addiction and working his way through the 12-step programme to serenity and sobriety. As he reaches step 9 – making direct amends to people who’ve been harmed – he invites his long-suffering foster parents Alan and Judith around to his bedsit, but raking over the past on the road to forgiveness – or rather Keith’s interpretation of forgiveness – proves to be a highly provocative and problematic affair.
And sadly, I found the play to be rather problematic too. In the already intimate Studio 2, Francesca Reidy’s design of a crumbling, claustrophobic hovel of a bedsit further tightens the available space – this might not have been so much of an issue if Tom Attenborough’s direction hadn’t been quite so static. It felt like I had to wait 10 minutes to actually see Harrison’s face once the play had started and too often, set configurations dominated resulting in a predominantly lacklustre feel.
And I have to say that I think Hayes’ writing contributes to this. Far too much time is wasted in set-up, given its barely 80 minutes long in total; questions of responsibility from all sides are never really investigated thoroughly enough though these seem to be central to the play; and the deployment of a random note of humour keeps a great uncertainty about things. Part of it could be explained through Keith’s lack of social skills, but it is also symptomatic of writing that never really seems sure of what it wants to say.
There are quick, almost schizophrenic, shifts in mood – reflecting Keith’s own temperament – but they carry little that is revelatory and with no preconceptions about Blake Harrison, I likewise found his performance to be less than convincing. Somewhat miscast here, he doesn’t inhabit the role enough to delve past the edgy antisocial humour and make us believe the hard-earned cynicism, pain and indeed immorality at his heart – perhaps a step too ambitious for someone with such limited theatre experience. Wendy Nottingham and Barry McCarthy fare better at fleshing out their characters of the foster parents, McCarthy is particularly moving in his despair, but they are hamstrung by being forced into improbable actions.
The final gambit, with the arrival of Ben Dilloway (fresh from the hugely successful Mercury Fur which, in a neat twist, transfers to this very theatre once Step 9… finishes) plus unlikely weapon ratchets up the tension quite effectively, but Hayes backs himself up into a corner in order to try and resolve it. Like so much of this production, it just didn’t work for me and so whilst it is always great to see new writing in such central venues, I would argue there’s still some refinement that needs to be made to make this a good piece of theatre. As it is, it just raises too many questions – most of which start with ‘why…’ – and is nowhere near robust enough to stand such examination.
Lastly, a note about the odious encroachment of premium seating in our theatres. The very idea of there being anything that could be described as premium in Trafalgar Studios 2 in the first place is stretching credulity, but that this top pricing brand (pushing prices up to £29.50 plus an additional £3 transaction fee) extends from the front row of the main block of seating into 4 of the 6 seats on the front side rows is just unforgivable. It is a rare show indeed in this theatre that gets the blocking and direction so spot on that those sitting in the side seats aren’t left watching a production that is mainly playing out to the front. To whack a premium onto these already over-inflated prices (in my view at least) seems like a greedily opportunistic move on the part of ATG, assumedly trying to capitalise on Harrison’s TV fame, and one which, for the sake of the cast and creatives, I hope does not backfire on them.