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Sorry, You're Not A Winner at Bristol Old Vic and tour – review

Samuel Bailey's new drama heads to Newcastle's Northern Stage next

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Kyle Rowe and Eddie-Joe Robinson in Sorry, You're Not a Winner
© Steve Tanner

The difficult second album/novel/film or play has haunted artists since the beginning. How do you follow up a first work that has entered the public consciousness, firming up the promise and electricity that the genuinely exciting debut elicits?

Samuel Bailey's Sorry, You're Not a Winner is a solid follow-up to his Papatango award-winning Shook; demonstrating an authentic tone when exploring working-class masculinity and opportunities offered and denied. If its plot beats feel a bit unsurprising – you can see where the narrative is going from the first moment – maybe the argument is that there is nowhere else these characters can go.

From GCSE exam result days onwards, paths are set which are impossible to escape from. We are introduced to Liam and Fletch on the night before everything changes. Best mates since primary school, Fletch has been in and out of school consistently excluded, with nowhere to go and plans as empty as the days are long, while Liam is one night removed from escaping the grey concrete jungle of home, for the spires and gilded libraries of Oxford. The initial scene has all the things left unsaid between two teenage boys, big on feelings and emotions but with no way of expressing them. Bonding is exchanged through beer and banter, years of nightly time-wasting talking about girls and football suddenly condensed into one final evening with the clock ticking.

It's in Lucy Sierra's monolithic set and Jesse Jones' confident production that the metaphor of their futures hits home. As Liam walks through one of the doors at the end of this scene, Fletch sees the door slam in his face. Later, as university moves on to post-graduate life, Liam finds his door slamming. Is it easy, Bailey posits, to escape your social class, even when you break through the glass ceiling of aspirations?

Eddie Joe-Robinson and Kyle Rowe are compelling as the two friends destined to drift apart but find a bond that can never fully break. Joe-Robinson is charmingly above it early on as academically gifted Liam, a natural ease and affinity that is strangulated when he is thrown into the world of black tie and canapes. Rowe's Fletcher has all the coiled energy of a young man who can't quite see a future mapped out but will do anything for his best mate since the age of six. It's rare to watch friendships between young men be portrayed so realistically on stage, and it's the craft of Bailey's writing that the things left unsaid sing with as much energy as the chat about Spurs and getting with ‘fit Shannon'.

As the two girls who could potentially offer stability, Katja Quist and Alice Stokoe make something of parts that feel underdeveloped and underwritten. This is a symptom of a play that could afford another 20 minutes to breathe and add colour. Sometimes Bailey's writing feels like we're dropping in rather than being afforded the space to get to know them. It's a credit to him that his writing makes you want to spend more time in the character's world.