The Old Red Lion Theatre often seems to have a ‘Tardis’ atmosphere to it – it is a small space, but one that with an inventive designer and director who respond to its constraints can truly open up whole new worlds within. This is certainly the case with the new production of Lucinda Burnett’s play Correspondence, a play that starts in Stockport, moves to Syria and back again, while exploring dark psychological terrain along the way.

As we take our seats the action is already underway. A large white ring is placed centre-stage, and within it sits Ben Loveall (Joe Attewell) concentrating hard at a video game console. The other characters (there are five players in all) face inwards to the walls of the space each with their own store of props and ready to take their place in the action. It is clear from the start that the journey we shall travel is an inward one, focused on what happens to and within Ben’s mind.

There are two types of ‘correspondence’ in play here. On the surface the story is of how Ben, living unhappily with his mum in Stockport, strikes up an online friendship with Jibreel (Ali Ariaie), who lives in Deraa, Syria. They both share a similar fascination with video games and football, and wish to screen out the everyday world around them, though for rather different reasons. The opening scenes are largely given over to their exchanges and the possibilities and self-deceptions involved in internet acquaintance. But as the action develops misunderstandings emerge between all the characters that raise questions as to whether intentions and actions can ever properly ‘correspond’ to one another.

On Ben’s part these sequential misunderstandings lead him to believe that Jibreel’s sudden radio silence means that he must be in danger from the deteriorating situation in Syria. He therefore hatches a plan to fly to Syria with his school friend Harriet (Jill Mcausland) in order to save his friend, and hoodwinking both his divorced parents in the process. However, the pair find things to be very different when they get there from what they had anticipated, and a whole process of traumatic unravelling ensues that affects the lives of all the characters profoundly.

There are many admirable features to the evening, whether technical or emotive. The banter between the three younger characters is admirably done, both plausible and funny throughout, and managing to indicate gaucheness and fear, as well as bravado. The pared down simplicity of the design and set creates a real flow and pace between the many short scenes. Director Blythe Stewart keeps things moving smoothly so you never feel the need for an interval. Just as in a good production of Peer Gynt, you do not need topographical specificity to give an impression of many miles travelled; so this play takes you on a long journey without the need to spell it out crudely.

There is a good balance between punchy dialogue and solo moments – each of the actors gets their own aria, so to speak, in which they can develop their own particular concerns and express the pressures they are under. But while everything works locally I have some concerns over the development of the bigger picture. The climax of the play revolves around an episode of psychosis and its aftermath in the lives of all the characters. While these consequences were impeccably played out by the actors, the jump between the earlier scenes and the later ones was too abrupt and unsignalled in the material. While no one would expect the dramatist to underplay the element of surprise, there would have been greater credibility if we had had a broader range of hints earlier on. If they were there then I missed them in the text and the acting. As a result while the final scenes had considerable pathos there was no dramatic arc unifying all the elements of the play in a single sweep, and that inevitably detracted from the impact overall.

The acting was sensitive and delicate from all the performers. At the centre of the action Attewall captured Ben’s nerdy intensity and vulnerability while also displaying his intelligence and essential sweetness of character. This is a big role that requires physical stamina and careful pacing, and he was fully up to the challenge. Ariaie, as Jibreel, has a role that is a tad underwritten in comparison with the others, but he managed to convey his character’s desperate desire to avert his attention from the collapse of the civic routine of his city and country, and later on the alienation of the refugee.

The liveliest scenes were between Ben and Harriet, both sparring and drawn to each other, and trying to preserve friendship in the most taxing of circumstances. Mcausland was superb in capturing Harriet’s brassy get-up-and-go and willingness to embrace adventure. Hers is a character that has to find maturity quickly and under great pressure – this transition is hard to bring off plausibly in a short space of time, yet she did it most effectively.

Ben’s parents, Fran and David, are played by Joanna Croll and David Extance. These roles start off in stereotypical fashion viewed very much from the perspective of their alienated son – the rowing, divorced parents more interested in using their son to score points off each other in their unresolved squabbles than in noticing his individual predicament. But both actors build these apparently unpromising roles into something much larger: their anxiety and desperation when their son goes missing is memorably depicted. Croll, in particular, has some wonderfully poignant moments when leaving unreturned voicemails on her son’s phone, and Extance modulates very plausibly into a caring dad during the play’s powerful final scene.

All in all this is very stimulating evening both in terms of the acting quality and the way the scenario integrates difficult and contemporary themes into a whole that makes sense of the different perspectives of the young people and the adults. I did not find it wholly convincing dramatically, but the way it tries to open up discussion of themes that are often skated over is admirable.

Three stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…