• Amy Toledano

Nuclear War, Buried & Graceland at the Old Red Lion

Image courtesy of Charles Flint Photography

What Is It?

A triptych of plays performing at the Old Red Lion Theatre as part of their ‘Where Are We Now?’ Season. Nuclear War is written by Simon Stephens, directed by Alexander Knott, and performed by Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp; Buried is written by David Spencer, joint-directed by Alexander Knott and Ryan Hutton, and performed by James Demaine; Graceland is written by Max Saunders-Singer, directed by Sonnie Beckett and performed by Anthony Cozens. Presented by BoxLess Theatre, Bag of Beard, Grindstone & Take Two Theatricals.

What Is It About?

These three stylistically contrasting pieces cover ground from social isolation to the intensity of public humiliation, from generational trauma to pondering over the inevitability of death. The evening’s first performance, Buried, follows the story of Max Spencer - a young soldier who relives the prominent moments in his life as he is left buried alive in the battlefields of Italy in 1943. This non-linear narrative reveals the pain and the love of Max’s short life - blighted by systemic abuse and societal shame in inter-war Ireland. The second show, Graceland, shines a spotlight on the tragically comic life of secondary school Chemistry teacher, Mr Chrichton, as he struggles to teach an unruly bunch of teenagers the laws of combustion as his own personal life implodes. Then there is the revival of Simon Stephen’s experimental piece, Nuclear War. This “series of suggestions on desire, death and time” is brought to life by the carefully choreographed movement and choral speaking of two female performers.

How Did It Make Me Feel?

There is something inherently intriguing about the choice of a theatre to stage a collection of plays in a single evening. One may draw parallels between the pieces and I indeed did try to find the parallels between this triptych of plays. While there is no one clear theme between Buried, Graceland and Nuclear War, all three pieces are portrayed with precise and focused performances from their actors, providing an evening that does not rest in provoking interest from its audience.

For me, the first of the three plays, Buried, delivered the most nuanced narrative. Max Spencer’s life is woven together with ingenuous use of a non-linear timeframe that ultimately creates a play that examines the pain of disconnection and the yearning of a man for his mother. James Demaine, the real life grandson of Max Spencer, gives a tour de force performance as Max, whilst also portraying the other significant figures in his life, mutiroling with the ease of a highly skilled performer.

Indeed, the greatest strength of this triptych of plays lies in the skill of its performers. While Graceland’s plot is somewhat predictable, Anthony Cozens’ ability to hold his audience and bring the moments of agony within the comedy to a focused head is what strengthens a somewhat weaker script. His intensity brings a charged electricity to the stage, and this magnetism is also shared by Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp in Simon Stephens’ movement based play, Nuclear War. While the meaning and significance of Nuclear War’s subject matter remains mercurial and enigmatic, Grain and Sharp evoke the inner life of their shared role with a studied care and complexity. The use of complicité in this piece brings the inner turmoils and thoughts of this female character to life on stage in a way that cleverly plays with our notions of time, personal history and identity.

Anything Else?

While there are some weaknesses in individual scripts and a lack of clarity as to the significance of other plays, this triptych is a highly enjoyable and challenging evening for its audience, provoking emotion and thought through nuanced and skilled performances.

Alexandra x

Nuclear War, Buried & Graceland are playing at the Old Read Lion Theatre until March 21st, 2020.

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