views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Etcetera Theatre
8th January 2014


Neil James and Robert Holden as Brian and Billy

Photography supplied by Play in a Bag Productions

If it's one for sorrow, two for joy, the fact that Play in a Bag's London debut Magpies is a two-hander in surely a good sign. Robert Holden and Neil James co-star as psychopaths Billy and Brian, stuck in a room together as they wait (im)patiently for their next set of instructions.

Magpies is a one-sided power struggle, newcomer Billy seems perfectly content to defer to Brian, but the more experienced criminal is constantly trying to show his dominance, swearing, snarling and making increasingly petty demands. It's more of a study of human nature than it is a comedy, but there is humour and this comes from the sheer ridiculousness of the conversation, and how the two men's idea of normal is so far away from the audience's perception.

Although there is plenty of waiting around, there are thankfully never any lengthy pauses where nothing happens, director Lucy Shaw ensures she captures the men's growing boredom without resorting to beating the audience over the head with it, in a way that many Chekhov plays do. Granted, this sounds workmanlike, but in this instance that's not a criticism with the play being nicely measured because of it.

What works less well are the constant "smart" nods to other theatre by playwright Gary Mepsted. The amount of times we have to make an argument for Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard being an influence on writers in this day and age is tiresome. Magpies makes clear a series of direct references to the classics, but in a framework in which it becomes more about two people existing rather than being existentialist. As entertaining as two men in a room can be, it becomes less so if one of them constantly brings up their futility in a knowing way. The pathos should come from their unwitting prison, not from heavy-handed referencing.

As is fitting, the conversation is mundane, banal and frequently goes off at the most implausible of tangents, broken up by only a few blackouts, which emphasise the passing of time and frustrating lack of progress. Shaw tries to ramp up this overwhelming idea of ennui with the pulsating sound of a heartbreak and ticking clock, the only piece of sound design in the production. However the claustrophobiaand general bleakness of the piece would have worked even better without the unnecessary intrusion.

There's also very little lighting design. It's the usual naturalistic throwback to the absurd - the men are holed up in a room with harsh yellow and blue lights pointing directly at them. It's an ugly situation and whilst the narrative never explicitly reveals what the men are planning to do - organised crime is never pleasant - there's enough said to convey the gist. Shaw refuses to soften the setting, we see the men in the cold, hard light of who and what they are. And as with many plays which run at the Etcetera, very few props are used, this isn't a production which needs any added bells or whistles.

The acting is very polished, whether or not you're drawn to this style of theatre, it's clear that Holden and James make Billy and Brian both believable characters, despite the author's propensity for romanticism and self-indulgent nods. Still, Mepsted makes them convincingly two halves of the same coin. Brian's insistence that they don't share too many details, nothing personal, to help ensure that they don't get too attached to each other, is satisfyingly futile from both a narrative and character point, and they end up trading stories about women. This reveals another side to the pair, the audience are never going to get fully on board, but this does round them out more.

It's certainly an encouraging entrance into the London Fringe scene from this primarily Brighton-based company - technically and performance-wise. However you can have too much of a good thing, and perhaps they need to let go of Beckett - after all, he's long and buried - and rely more on their own, new ideas.

Magpies ran from 8th to 10th January 2014 at the Etcetera Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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