I do love a reconfigurable theatre space. I was at the King’s Head only the other day and the playing area was in “thrust” form with the audience on three sides, a lush pink carpet covering the floor. But now it’s the gangway outside flats on a London estate, with “end-on” seating. Never knowing how a space will be arranged adds to the sense of expectancy before seeing a show.
What I don’t love is the infamous “bucket speech” before the play, when a member of the front-of-house staff shows off the merchandise range and makes the same old jokes about folding up donations etc. I find this an irksome prelude to a production and I wish they’d drop it.
But to the show. James Corely’s debut play is a terrifically assured study of child/parent relationships, exploring how different people cope with their own unique challenges.
It’s 1998 and 19-year-old nervy, stuttering Ben (Tom Milligan) and his twice-divorced mum Viv (Patricia Potter) move into a one bedroom flat on a Chelsea estate. It’s the latest of many fresh starts for footloose Viv, and not one that Ben embraces with any enthusiasm.
Next door, Kosovan widower Ylli (Nikolaos Brahimllari) and his son Besnick (Mirlind Bega) are council tenants who make the newcomers welcome, the boys forming a bond over video games in spite of Ben’s hesitation and insecurity compared to Besnick’s easy self-confidence.
As Viv struggles to support herself and Ben, and Ylli becomes increasingly outraged by news footage of atrocities being inflicted on his Kosovan brethren back home, the boys’ relationship edges into romance. It has to be said that this is entirely due to Besnick’s efforts, since Ben is no more capable of acting on his sexuality than he is of leaving the flat and finding himself a job. But as played by Milligan, Ben is an incredibly endearing wreck, the sort of character you want to shake some sense into, but you find you just have to hug instead.
In fact, the cast are superb across the board, aided by Corley’s excellently naturalistic script. Potter gives a vivid portrait of a middle-aged woman, desperate to give her life continued meaning, Brahimllari’s skilfully blends a natural optimism with furious indignation, and as good-hearted Besnick, Bega is charm itself.
A late turn into tragedy is dramatically effective, but I felt uneasy about Corley using a real life event as a plot point. I’m sure this wasn’t the intention, but it feels a bit disrespectful, and the same narrative beat could have been created through fiction.
However, the overall achievement of the play cannot be denied. It’s a wonderfully mixed and balanced ensemble piece that finds space to illuminate the truth of all four of its complex and interesting characters. It’s also a very slick production, directed with confident precision by Harry Mackrill, on a nicely functional set by Rachel Stone.
I look forward to my next visit to the King’s Head. Who knows what it will look like, or if the show will be as great as this one? The only certainty is that bloody bucket speech.
Written by: James Corley
Directed by: Harry Mackrill
Produced by: Nisha Oza
Playing until: 21 September 2019
Box Office: 020 7226 8561
Booking Link: https://system.spektrix.com/kingsheadtheatre/website/eventdetails.aspx?WebEventId=worldsend