Famous for incubating some of the country's best new playwriting talents, the Bruntwood Prize has treated us to some real gems like Chris Urch's 2015 The Rolling Stone. This time, sadly, they've served up a dud. James Fritz's Bruntwood Prize-winning play is under-cooked, riddled with hamfisted dialogue and heavy with soggy cliché.
Kat (a valiant Esther Smith), full of youthful political zeal, is on her way to London to do something 'bad', something that will change the world, something that will make people sit up and remember her name. That her conscience is personified, cajoling and chastising her about the choice she's soon to make, promises an intriguing existentialist struggle. Random objects lying around Fly Davis' bare and starkly-lit stage suggest absurdist playfulness. Instead what we get is a production that begins with nowhere to go and ends with a whimper.
Kat eventually gets to Parliament Square where she vainly attempts self-immolation, the act being interrupted by Catherine (Seraphina Beh) a random passer-by. The action of Kat's rehabilitation and the family's reaction to her protest drags itself through a monotonous trough where pitch and tone are sacrificed for over-egged, over-breathed emotion. Even in the final 'act', as the world dissolves around the protagonists and the jerky dystopian strobe lighting takes over, the mood is drab, the pace as fluid as porridge, words stick to the backs of throats like fly-paper.
What's driven Kat to her point of no return is never revealed; it simply remains a dull mystery wrapped in an even duller enigma. And we've no incentive to find out, no suspense to keep us intrigued. The play simply crawls, embarrassingly, toward a horribly obvious end.
The performers are admirable in their awkwardness but struggle to bring the thin material alive, not helped by flat-lining direction from Jude Christian. A braver interpretation might have rescued Parliament Square. Tedious platitudes like "You get a bit of happiness and then you die" or "It's called being a human" (not once, but twice) or "You know what? I'm going to hug you" just condemn it. Sporadic attempts at humour are lost on a groggy audience.
Maybe James Fritz wants us to be sucked into the theatrical equivalent of a black hole to make a point: that it's all a metaphor for the lack of impact of the individual (playwright). Maybe the hackneyed dramatic constructs are a counter-intuitive device to show that change is impossible and we're all Kat, desperately finding a cause to die for. Maybe. What I do know is it's been a long time since I've seen a piece that says so very little about nothing at all.
Can theatre change the world? On the evidence of Parliament Square, it would struggle.
Parliament Square is running at the Royal Exchange until 28 October.