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The Great Escapers
The Bread & Roses Theatre
19th November 2019

★★★☆☆

Eloise Black, Tommy Burgess, Josh Johnson and Math Sams as Roxie, Mickey, Ryan and Charles

Photography provided by Permissive Society

As someone who has spent the last few months hoping to win the lottery as a strategy for achieving early retirement and who has been unsurprisingly disappointed thus far, I freely admit even the best of us can make some appalling financial decisions from time to time. It's human nature to hope and that's what makes us all think we can be that one special person who magically beats the odds. In The Great Escapers, unemployed Roxie (Eloise Black) decides that digging a tunnel to liberate an ATM of its contents is a perfectly valid alternative to getting a National Minimum Wage job. After first enlisting her similarly jobless boyfriend Ryan (Josh Johnson) and career criminal friend Mickey (Tommy Burgess), one construction expert later and Roxie has got herself a merry band of would-be bandits.

Pitched as a 90-minute comedy, The Great Escapers runs noticeably over, and flits between light entertainment and drama. There are lots of interesting ideas and an equally large number of scene changes to accommodate them all. Burgess and Joe Murray's sound design to cover the transitions is at times remarkably spot on, with clever choices such as the Tesco Remix (This Can Now Be Placed In Your Bag). There are some other nice touches in Murray's direction. The use of simple wooden frames for example to fluidly represent anything from computers to windows works very well in the small space.

However, stopping and starting so many times doesn't help with the pacing, which isn't punchy enough for a true comedy caper. The premise of digging a tunnel to rob an ATM may be inspired by the numerous real life attempts (successful and otherwise) in cities such as Manchester, but it is still pretty far-fetched and therefore the show needs to more firmly land in farce territory. When the action slows down, you have time to think, and being able to reflect too much on a comedy can detract from its humour. Murray needs to keep us laughing too hard to question the suspension of reality.

When we are first introduced to the protagonists, they are very much two-dimensional caricatures. Any discomfort at painting Roxie and Ryan as benefit scroungers is later alleviated somewhat by a similar attack on white collar professional Charles (Math Sams). They are all there for the laughs, no one class is singled out. However, we do see rather more character development than the opening scenes suggest there will be. We witness some real growth from Ryan as he reevaluates his options, we see angry frustration on Roxie's part briefly melt away to show a young woman with unrealised ambition who simply doesn't believe she can change her life with any gesture smaller than the stars and planets aligning perfectly. These flashes of something deeper demonstrate playwright Richard Fitchett's strengths. He constructs these fleshed out characters with their own hopes, dreams and gigantic flaws and shouldn't be afraid to reveal more of this earlier on. Understanding Roxie's insecurities from the start wouldn't prevent us from laughing with her or at her and would I'm sure garner a more enthusiastic response.

Some of the technical detail too could be tightened. For me, Charles simply isn't enough of a sad sack to risk everything for a possible £40k payout. Unlike Roxie and Ryan who seem resigned to a pay ceiling of £8.21 per hour, £40k represents a fairly average salary for a man in Charles' line of work. Although he's fallen on tough times, it just doesn't seem enough of a temptation to get him to risk what's left of his reputation. For his involvement to feel more natural, either he needs to be expecting a far bigger return or for him be portrayed as more desperate. It's a little niggle which distracts from the plot.

A promising piece of new writing, The Great Escapers would benefit from a bit more polish before a second run. As ridiculous as the characters' get rich concept is, there is a genuine warmth and relatability underpinning their behaviour and that's what makes it worth your time.

The Great Escapers opened on 19th November and runs until 23rd November 2019 at The Bread & Roses Theatre.

Clapham High Street (Overground)



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