“All I wanted was a night in,” bleats James Alexandrou’s dopey Grim as he surveys the human battlefield his grimy East End basement flat has turned into by act two of Steven Hevey’s dark and dangerous comedy set against a backdrop of the July 7th terror bombings in London and the more distant war on terror raging in Iraq.
Draped in his depressingly dingy dressing gown, dreary young shelf-stacker Grim has been dumped by his girlfriend, but his mobile won’t work, there’s nothing much on the telly, a mouthy geezer from work called Royal (Ray Panthaki) has called round with a Die Hard DVD and is doing drugs in the (broken) toilet, and to cap it all his paranoid new ex-soldier flatmate, Egg (Kevin Watt), has finally cracked, having slipped into a vest and camouflage pants and held the local Indian takeaway delivery man hostage (Adeel Akhtar). Meanhile, beyond the glum nether regions of Upton Park, London is at a standstill, buses are being blown up and there’s bloody carnage on the tube.
It’s this heightened mix of fear, foreboding, farce, snappy character observation and bleak social awareness that gives Paine’s Plough and Channel 4 writer on attachment Hevey’s first full-length play (which transfers to the Trafalgar Studios after a sell-out season at the Old Red Lion theatre) such skin-tingling punchiness, although on press night, any remaining emotional goose bumps left reached Everest proportions when Panthaki stepped forward at the curtain call and explained how the company had dedicated the performance to Ben Kinsella, Panthaki’s girlfriend’s brother, who became the 17th teenage victim of knife crime in the capital this year.
“The play highlights issues that seem to infect our country at the moment,” Panthaki quietly explained while holding back the tears, and although In My Name clearly didn’t set out to take on the tragic cut-throat culture of street crime Britain, it’s certainly topical state-of-the-nation stuff in which the nation is shown to be in such a poor state that all sense of morality is on the blink and nobody quite knows what being young and British means any more.
There’s no doubt that this play is sharply written, with a keen ear for the dialogue of dumb no-hopers, but as it goes down the “Brits-in-a-mess” road, it tends to duck reaching any conclusions about a directionless generation with no moral compass to guide them. And towards the end, it’s a pity that the hostage-taking plot gets too embroiled in a gun-wielding stand-off between the increasingly insane Egg, who hears Islamist bombers plotting in the woodwork, and grungy Grim, who would prefer reading lad mags and playing celebrity games like Guess Who? to facing the threatening world outside, while Penthaki’s pathetic cock-sure street dude just caves in to reality.
Even so, Hell is clearly a smelly basement in Upton Park and, as the anxiety levels grow, director Julia Stubbs gets finely tuned fly-on-the-wall performances from the four actors. You keep holding your breath – or laughing out loud – every time a character reveals a bit more of his own crass stupidity, which makes seeing this street-smart sideswipe at a doomed generation of gutless morons far better than a night in any day.