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Microcosm (Soho Theatre)

Menacing but predictable intruders create the drama in Matt Hartley's play

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Jenny Rainsford and Philip McGinley
© Katie Cotterell

The menacing outsider has become a familiar dramatic device. What better way to ramp up the tension than to insert the creeping threat of an intruder? In Matt Hartley's play, those intruders come predictably clad in hoodies, lurking on street corners and hurling rocks through windows. His landscape of suspicion and paranoia is a recognisable one – as his title suggests, the play's street might as well stand in for a starkly divided modern British society.

Topical as Hartley's subject is, however, Microcosm struggles to probe much further than the countless news reports and comment pieces to confront the same issues. It opens with a young couple, Alex and Clare, moving into their new flat, glowing with an optimism that is clearly doomed. The entertaining early scenes, in which Alex awkwardly gets to know his over-friendly, Tom Cruise obsessed neighbour Philip, could be from an entirely different play, but it soon becomes clear that the real threat – at least as far as Alex is concerned – is waiting on the street outside. From here on in, the drama never strays far from its expected path, even if it takes some ambitious turns along the way.

Ultimately, Microcosm strains itself by trying to be several things at once: a psychological study of mounting paranoia, a social commentary on the damaging class divisions that still split British streets, and a critique of the poisonous right-wing rhetoric that so often emerges in response to urban violence and vandalism. Despite the considerable efforts of Philip McGinley, Alex's escalating anxiety never quite convinces, while the views spouted by John Lightbody's Philip – most extreme among them being the suggestion that Britain's anti-social youth need to be shipped off to fight in a war – are all too easily shrugged off. By establishing Philip as a ridiculous figure from the outset, his loudly expressed opinions become the laughable beliefs of a misguided prat, rather than the dangerously pervasive political views that they are.

While it may fall short of its aims, however, this production does boast some intelligent touches. Jenny Rainsford's Claire is nicely ambiguous, her policy of non-interference knocking up against her growing frustration – at one point almost tipping her into agreement with Philip. The standout feature of James Perkins' sparse, Ikea-esque design, meanwhile, is the series of translucent panels at the back of the stage, lending a goldfish bowl atmosphere to the flat and effectively visualising Alex's paranoia. It is just a shame that director Derek Bond feels the need to opt for a tired replica of the demonised "hooded youth" stereotype when the outsiders begin to knock on the other side. As with that over-familiar image, there is little in Microcosm that hasn't been seen before.

Microcosm runs at Soho Theatre until 25 May.