views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Beetles from the West
The Hope Theatre
8th July 2016


The cast

Photography provided by Falling Pennies

People rarely cover themselves in glory in hospital waiting rooms. Often they end up there unexpectedly, aware something is wrong but not exactly what, and this uncertainty coupled with the inevitably long delays creates all kinds of tension. There's a reason why there are normally so many signs up warning patients and their relatives against being abusive towards the staff. Like I said, no glory. In Beetles from the West, Boyd (Ryan Penny) and Jenny (Shian Denovan) have found themselves in that little room of hell, anxiously awaiting news of Boyd's father who has suddenly taken ill. It's a one-act and one-room piece, with playwright James Hartnell seeking to address some big issues, which have been inspired by the company's very personal experiences.

When we meet them, to be perfectly blunt, Boyd and Jenny are thoroughly hateful. Whilst it's obvious from the setting that they're in a difficult situation, they're obnoxious, rude and even bandy about some casual homophobia. We do of course feel sorry for Boyd's father off-stage, however we initially find it much harder to care about the young couple in front of us. Over the course of just over an hour though, the outer hateful shell of these two characters is stripped back and we see them as people. Just people. They're scared and upset, forced to confront instinctive fears of mortality and abandonment. Director Phil Croft somehow manages to bring out the basic humanity in this duo and persuades us to feel some sympathy for them, which frankly is no mean feat.

Although the characterisation is done well, there are some weaknesses with Hartnell's writing. Some of the dialogue between Boyd, Jenny and the doctor, Henry (Chris Machari), comes across as a bit clunky and contrived. It just doesn't seem believable that Henry would reveal such a serious suspected diagnosis before completing all the relevant tests, with Boyd and Jenny's subsequent questioning more of a device to get him to talk about a specific health issue, rather than a natural response to the revelation. It could be written more smoothly. References to NHS doctors striking, child poverty and war are distracting from the main substance to this play and aren't covered in any sufficient depth to convey a real political message. Far stronger to cut these out and focus solely on Boyd's story. We get the sense that perhaps Hartnell doesn't think this on its own is sufficient to sustain 65 minutes, but he should have more confidence in the emotional gut punch it brings.

The direction at times feels a little artificial, with Henry clearly moving around chairs to give the audience a crack at a good view, rather than because it makes sense to do so. The soliloquies which are recited whenever time seemingly stops still show more finesse, with a wide range of sentiment brought out, giving us an deeper insight into each character. This is especially critical for Boyd and Jenny, who really need this extra bit of solo time to get the audience to invest in them. Penny and Denovan bring out the softer side to their characters here, laying open vulnerabilities. As for Machari, he shines in these more contemplative and poetic moments, with a natural flair for this style.

Ultimately, whilst the narrative doesn't always do justice to the play's underlying message, the actors do ably compensate for any rough spots. Beetles from the West covers some very difficult subject matters with a great deal of passion and some very raw, heartfelt performances.

Beetles from the West opened on 5th July and runs until 23rd July 2016 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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