David Harrower’s new play for the National Theatre of Scotland, one of the most eagerly anticipated productions at last month’s EIF, was accused by some Edinburgh critics of being in a state of unreadiness at the time of its festival debut.
The few weeks that have passed since then have obviously been productive, for this is a company who have grown up, ironically enough as most of their characters are denied the chance to do so. 365, inspired by Nick Davies’ late 90s book on British child poverty, is a fragmented ensemble piece – multiple narratives combining to provide a snapshot of life in a block of ‘practice flats’, where adolescents in care learn how to live as adults.
Most of the characters – the abandoned child, the immigrant, the misfit – are archetypes, and don’t throw up particular surprises. But the humanity of the performances and the raw emotional pulse beating beneath the surface of every scene is compelling. Granted, no real solutions are to be found here, but then is this a situation in which solutions are possible?
The company, made up of young and largely inexperienced actors, is a revelation – stand-outs including the painfully awkward Ben Presley, darkly comic Owen Whitelaw and quick-witted Rebecca Smith. But to highlight particular performances seems almost unjust when this truly is a team effort.
There are certainly weak-spots. A slow start, the disengagement that inevitably creeps in with so many narratives on show, and the somewhat underwhelming choreography of Black Watch movement maestro Steven Hoggett take from an otherwise accomplished evening. But director Vicky Featherstone ensures the intrinsic pace of Harrower’s script never flags, and creates an endless series of striking images, aided by Georgina McGuinness’ stunning set – 365 is a production photographer’s dream.
The anger inherent in the piece is not directed so much at the system as at those who are responsible for denying these children the chance to grow up with even the basic requirements of a happy life. It comes as no surprise that (according to the programme) half of all prisoners under the age of 25 grew up in care, when one considers the extent of their emotional neglect. At the beginning of a century in which we are often fooled into thinking that mass poverty in Britain is a thing of the past, 365 gives a voice to the silent multitude who indicate otherwise.
- Theo Bosanquet
Note: The following THREE STAR review dates from 24 August, when this production premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival
Writer David Harrower spoke in an interview a month or so prior to this production about how most of the script was still unwritten at that time, as the truths being brought out by the young actors made most of his work seem out of touch with reality. Certainly, it is a frighteningly difficult task to try and encompass the varied experiences of the many teenagers in care in Scotland today in a balanced and yet dramatically interesting way, but the resulting collection of stories, abruptly-told tales of lost and confused youths making their first steps into the outside world, seems as if it could have benefited from a longer writing period.
It is not so much that it is disjointed – this is deliberate, and appropriate – but rather that the characters (with a few exceptions) are very thinly-composed, and lack suitable development over the course of the evening. The talented young ensemble cast play the inhabitants of so-called ‘training flats’, temporary half-way houses for young adults between being in full-time adolescent care in a communal unit, and full independence from the system. These residences are where the teenagers (all given only a letter to denote their character, not a name) are supposed to learn everything about the real world, from how to wire a plug to how to negotiate the complex terrain of everyday human interaction.
Vicky Featherstone directs with a sensitive touch that falls just on the right side of sentimentality, and, where the writing is good, enables the actors to really find some depth to their performances. This leads to some moments of true tenderness, such as in the story of two brothers shouting at each other, separated by the locked door of the flat.
Sadly though, these sections are let down by too many over-simplified characters who form a checklist of the stereotypes we expect to see, rather than becoming individually-wrought, fully dimensional entities.