I was looking forward to seeing If. Destroyed. Still. True, The Hope Theatre being one of my favourite venues. The first thing that struck me was how much space was taken up by the set, which appeared to be a pier, with elevated walkways and grassy banks. It transpired that we are at an unknown seaside town. The play opens with James (Theo Ancient) looking wistfully out to sea. John (Jack Condon) enters reading a message on his mobile phone, just as Jack leaves. They do not interact. It seemed a somewhat confusing start. The two we soon discover are old school friends, James having moved away to university, while John stayed in their hometown.
Things gains pace and momentum with the introduction of Charlotte (Whitney Kehinde), James’ girlfriend. John makes it clear he doesn’t approve of her, referring to her and James as being middle class, whereas he is very proud of his working-class roots. His behaviour is openly bigoted. But the scene between the three of them just felt overly long and uncomfortable to watch – John’s drunken, loutish behaviour, vulgar quips, and one-liners dominated the scene, as he made clear to then that this was his town – his territory.
The play cried out for more depth of character and dialogue. There were promising glimmers of this when James returns to the town to help John after an accident, even though John insists he doesn’t want to be “saved”. It’s here we learn that John is deeply unhappy in the “apocalyptic town” and that his mental health is suffering. Perhaps a monologue would have given us more insight into his mind and deeper thoughts, so helping with character development?
Framing a play within a timespan of ten years must be a difficult thing to achieve. The actors’ physical appearance do not change and neither does the set. At the five-year mark, John refers to James’ being dressed in a suit but he is, in fact, wearing an overcoat. A small detail, but one which could have been solved with a simple change of costume and provided an element of realism.
The set design – the elevated stage, poor blocking and seating layout – made it impossible to connect with neither play nor actors. Coupled with some protracted dialogue, it sadly left me disengaged. I longed to see the actors’ eyes and emotional connection, particularly in the final two-hander between James and Charlotte. Here the pair delivered nuanced performances, so it was a shame that all I could see for most of it was the back of a head! Far from ideal.
A shorter play, with tighter scenes focusing more on the relationships and character backstories, would have made things more interesting to watch. The mental health angle was promising, and I then wanted to know more about Charlotte’s struggles – something that was only hinted at. Come the end, I found myself having little, if any, empathy for John, James, and Charlotte, a rare thing indeed for me to say that about a play.
Written by: Jack Condon
Directed by: Sarah Stacey
Produced by: Lyle Productions
If. Destroyed. Still. True plays at The Hope Theatre until 14 May. Further information and tickets can be found here.