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Pack, Finborough Theatre

Louise Monaghan
Directed by Louise Hill
★★★

Pros: An absolutely amazing all-female cast and a passionate, intense, and unique story.

Cons: A bit of a jumpy script – coherency sometimes took a backseat to valuable but heavy-handed morals.

Our Verdict: A polished and fiercely performed show that was powerful but in the end maybe a bit too overpowering.

Courtesy of the Finborough Theatre

I didn’t go into the Finborough’s new play about race and politics expecting the setting to be a bridge club for beginners. Similarly, the characters of Louise Monaghan’s Pack were equally surprised to find their weekly get-away from familial responsibilities turning into a mine field of family and community crises, so Pack is nothing if not an unexpected trip for all. That’s not a bad thing, of course; as a matter of fact, the juxtaposition of setting and conflict is one of the script’s primary virtues. Pack reminds us that not even something so mundane, so domestic, so unthreatening as a beginner’s bridge club in a community centre is safe from the reaches of hatred and destruction.

The play begins harmlessly enough: friends and mothers Stephie and Deb decide to join a beginners’ bridge club, led by a local teacher, Dianna, to bust out of their daily routine. They are joined by Nasreen, a Muslim doctor. While all three beginners come from different backgrounds, financial situations, and locales, they do share common ground as mothers of boys. The way it begins, you might expect a ‘Divine-Secrets-of-the-Ya-Ya-Sisterhood’-or-‘Jane-Austen-Book-Club,’-esque situation to ensue – a cozy, warm story where women bond over coffee and old love stories. But this is where Monaghan’s script takes a very strong, very appreciable left turn.

Before the women are able to form strong friendships, a disagreement breaks out over an upcoming rally for the British National Party. Though all are quick to disassociate themselves with the BNP, it comes out that Stephie’s husband, Simon, is a supporter. At first this is more of a hurdle for Dianna to overcome than Nasreen, but when Stephie’s son is accused of attacking and hospitalizing a Pakistani boy at school the following week, her husband’s politics are not so easily overlooked, and not one of the women is able to hold herself in check. What results in their following club meetings is a powder keg of racial and domestic issues.

Excellent performances were the driving force behind this show. While I found the story engaging, the script itself often smoothed over or ignored details that would have made the entire thing more cohesive; I often felt like chunks were missing, and the conclusion came too easily and abruptly. However, I was easily able to overlook many oversights in the structure thanks to the incredible focus and dedication of the actresses. Sarah Smart was particularly fantastic to watch as Stephie, a truly sweet and vulnerable woman whose struggle to understand her family and herself gives the play so much of its heart. It was impossible not to love her, and while Monaghan certainly gave Smart the material to work with, her performance brought such an amazing and infectious life to the role. Every woman had her moment – many moments, really. It’s a fantastic ensemble and the chemistry between the actresses was the element that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

Aside from some plot-holes and minor confusion in the script, I found the messages being pushed a little too obvious for my own taste. It often felt like the script was shoving its politics down my throat when it didn’t need to; the situation presented in the play is jarring enough and doesn’t require extra work to disturb audiences. Clunky, expository speech about how the BNP is bad felt unnecessary and frankly annoying; the script lays out a series of actions to express how hurtful racism is, so it doesn’t need further commentary. The public-service-announcement nature of some of the dialogue took me out of my engagement and connection to what was taking place instead of inciting my feelings about it further. Additionally, every character was, at least once if not more often, urged to go to therapy. Fine and dandy, but the insistence that a character seek help off stage because the problem in unsolvable onstage damps down the conflict we are watching play out, and it feels a bit like a subliminal message loop: see a counsellor, see a counsellor.

All that said, it never hurts to be reminded that racism is bad and professional help is available – and there are worse ways to do it than through such stellar performances as those in Pack, so don’t shy away from the Finborough this month!

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Pack runs at the Finborough Theatre until 22nd December 2012.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652 or book online at http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2012/papatangonewwritingfestival-pack.php

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