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Solid Air (Plymouth)

Doug Lucie explores class divides and friendship in the 1970s in this play at the Theatre Royal

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Doug Lucie (The Green Man, Presence and more) has created a resonating night that could have happened featuring two great folk musicians and a Prime Minister in the making in Drum Theatre Plymouth's Solid Air.

Thrown into the mix is an upper class would-be RSC actor, politically motivated, a chip-on-his-shoulder working class student, a sadistic paratrooper, a heap of smoky bacon crisps, booze and enough hash brownies to wreak havoc.

Said to be a pure flight of fancy, Lucie uses this unlikely combination to explore themes of disparity, commercialism, class divide, friendship and social mobility.

It is the early 1970s and John Martyn, buoyed by the success of his latest eponymous album, is booked to play four sets through the night of the exclusive Oxford University Ball. In tow is morose fellow artiste Nick Drake, broken and despairing of a fan base that does not appreciate his newest release.

The Best Actor BAFTA Scotland winner Sean Biggerstaff (Harry Potter, Consenting Adults and more) is believable in both word and song as the ebullient maverick Martyn, whose accent slips between London and Glaswegian as he ramps up the fun and the class war.

Tom Clegg (DNA national tour, The Show) exudes melancholy from every pore in an intense performance in which, for the most part, he is an on-looker while new RADA graduate with promise Phil Elstob plays the hyper, sycophantic and increasingly stoned naïve Anthony Blair.

Nicely paced Alice Bailey Johnson (Untitled 13) encompasses oh so many 70s would-bes as Sarah. At secretarial school as too thick for education but with a silver spoon in her mouth, she aspires to the RSC and a wealthy husband while practising free love with the caveat that she'd like it to mean something.

Newcomer Jim English nicely underplays Dave, the stereotype working class son of a milkman (or not) whose required militant cliches pour forth in that wonderfully empty but earnest way of teenagers, and Joe Sims beautifully exudes menace as the bigoted and racist off-duty para George, whose experiences have left him devoid of emotion and optimism (an interesting listen on Armistice Day).

Bob Bailey's set speaks of privilege and antiquity – fading wallpaper and damp spots juxtapositioned with fine wood carvings and mullioned stain-glass windows. Spot on.

Stereotypes they may be, but this works. Many a remembered drunken university gathering comes to mind as the work encompasses the meaning of friendship and class, the measures of success and unfulfilled promise. The uninterrupted two hours passes with hardly a glance at the watch as director Mike Bradwell has this nicely paced.

- Karen Bussell