“This isn’t bunking off to Stockport, to play Laser Quest at Grand Central. This is the kind of activity that sets us apart from the dross.”
And what activity it is. Clever enough to not really need to revise for his upcoming GCSEs, 16-year-old Ben spends most of his spare time on Xbox Live but when his Syrian friend Jibreel disappears from his contact list, he decides to launch a rescue mission from his Stockport bedroom. But it’s not quite as simple as all that, Torn between squabbling divorced parents, Ben’s home life has been significantly troubled and as it is 2011, the murmurings of civil unrest abroad herald what would soon be known as the Arab Spring.
Lucinda Burnett’s Correspondence thus straddles two immensely weighty subjects. The power and potential of mass protest in a nascent revolution and how we connect to it as global citizens, but also the complexity and cruelty of incipient psychosis and again, the difficulties it poses in connecting with others. Over a running time of just 80 minutes, the play doesn’t always manage to engage and interrogate fully the enormity of these issues, relying on a plot contrivance or two too many to convince that they’re being explored efficaciously.
Blythe Stewart’s direction realises a good deal of Burnett’s ambition, not least in emphasising the video game influences in Bethany Wells’ striking set complete with character recharge stations and the blinking lights designed by Christopher Nairne. In this world, Joe Attewell delivers a powerfully committed performance as Ben, his shifted perspective allowing him to detach from reality and begin his outlandish journey, even collecting a fellow player in the form of Jill McAusland’s gobby bully Harriet, her character progression one of the play’s strongest aspects.
But given the crowded narrative and the compressed timeframe, the rapid deterioration of Ben’s mental health doesn’t quite land with the requisite power. So much is already packed into the knotty notion of white liberal intentions interjecting into the affairs of the rest of the world, even when rooted in teenage idealism, amplified by its personalised link in Jibreel’s experience (charismatic work by Ali Ariaie), that one is left wanting greater focus from Burnett, to better showcase her undoubted talent.