“Is that what you knew? Even then? Even as a little boy? That you had it in you?”
The Royal Court’s weekly rep season has been about promoting new writers but the name Clare Lizzimore may already be familiar to some, as indeed it was to me and making me more intrigued to see her play – Mint – than any of the others. She has worked as a director for a few years now, creating some excellent work in intimate surroundings like Mike Bartlett’s Bull at Sheffield’s Studio and One Day When We Were Young as part of Paines Plough’s Roundabout season. But Mint marks her first foray into playwriting, as part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme.
And whether through design or just a happy accident of fate, it reunites Lizzimore with Sam Troughton – most excellent in Bull – who takes on the lead role of Alan and delivers one of the finest performances this season has seen so far. Alan is facing a five year prison sentence for an unspecified act of robbery and as he serves his time, we see the snippets of normality he is allowed to experience through the weekly visits from his family. The banter with his slightly older sister, the bickering with his much younger sister, the grim disapproval of his stern father, the blithe but affected nonchalance of his uncomprehending mother. But the play also covers the three years after his release as it turns out being released ain’t as easy as all that.
The first part is excellently done, the swift passage of time clearly signposted with landmark events – marriage, babies, university – and the sibling relationships are acutely well-observed. Laura Elphinstone’s Stephanie trying her best but struggling to deal with the reality of it all, especially as it impacts on her domestic life, and Angela Terence’s Nicola maturing before our very eyes from a stroppy schoolgirl to the young woman who understands the world much more deeply – her wordless (re)acting in the final scene is a masterpiece of subtle but keenly felt emotion.
And a constant presence throughout, Troughton’s Alan is a ball of powerful but confused feeling. An evident lack of remorse means he is constantly on the defensive, unsure why he is garnering more sympathy from his family and frustrated at a prison system that keeps transferring him from institution to institution. The relationship with his parents – Debbie Chazen and Alan Williams – is less well drawn though, suffering from the economy of information that raises questions rather than just intriguing the audience, and particularly in the final scene which very much feels like something ought to have preceded it to give us some context that would make more sense.
It was also never clear to me just how old Alan was. The script, available to download for free here, says he starts off at 27 meaning he’s 36 by the end, which in retrospect doesn’t feel entirely right but I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly why. But never mind, my favourite relationship in the play was undoubtedly between Alan and his niece Amber, the dutiful uncle teaching her to bake whilst she grilled him on the ‘bad’ thing he had done with the piercing clarity of a child’s logic that was just beautiful to watch. There’s just one day left to catch this but I’d say it is well worth the effort and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we don’t see this play gain some kind of successful future life.