The Brink is thought-provoking and inspiring theatre.

imageJo        But you’re taking a risk thinking you know what safe is. Safe isn’t always an option.
Nick    You think?
Jo       Think of a car in the middle of a busy road. There’s no safe way of getting to either side with all these cars like zooming past   in both directions. The cat’s got to be aware of the risks. But it’s also got to move, it’s got to get through the traffic to…
Nick   But what if the cat just stays there, waiting for all the traffic to pass?
Jo       A cat sat in the road is taking a bigger risk than a cat running across it. Think about it.                

This exchange occurs early in Brad Birch’s new play, The Brink, and when it does, it strikes you as significant. Funny, but also, somehow, profound.  A clue. You feel sure that the “cat exchange” will come back to have meaning, to unlock something about the play which may not be clear.

Your feeling is right. The “cat exchange” is referenced later in the play and, by the end of the play, you have the very clear feeling that the central character, Nick, a 28 year old teacher, represents the cat in the play – stuck at a point of his life with difficult options whizzing by, circling him, and without the ability to decide how or where to move forward. If he makes the wrong move, calamity awaits.

But, as Mel Hillyard’s incisive premiere production of The Brink, now playing at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, amply demonstrates, Birch’s play concerns itself with much more than the agonies of an individual male teacher. It is, as the programme suggests: an arch but affecting parable for the times we live in.

Birch makes many points in the course of an engaging, sometimes perplexing, narrative. Even at the end of the play, it is not clear what is real and what is simply a dream or nightmare or passing thought of one of the characters. The overall impression is that what we are watching is Nick’s story – but, actually, we might be watching someone else’s interpretation of Nick’s story.

It doesn’t matter really, because the points Birch is making concern modern life, how “normality” is exalted, how “progress” is decided by popular notions, how “the common good” now means “what’s best for me”, how different generations have very different views about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and how modern communication is fractured and mostly unsatisfactory. The “nothing to do with me” and “hide it away until someone finds out” approach to life is skilfully examined and resonates particularly strongly in a world still, frankly, reeling from the ramifications of the Leveson Inquiry, the Saville Inquiry and, most recently, the Panama Papers scandal.

Birch provides no answers, but answers are not necessary. Only the audience can provide the answers – and this is one of the great qualities of Birch’s writing. It is one text but it can (and does) speak to people differently, depending on their own experiences and points of view. This is one of the strengths in Birch’s talent – universality from the singular, but universality capable of diversity.

The writing is crisp and intelligent, the characters clearly defined in easy, deft strokes with dialogue that rings true but also has hidden depths. Some of the material is excruciatingly funny, but in other places the writing is dark and brutal. Like life, Birch’s text does not conform to rigid categorisation. This makes for a constantly engaging and vividly confronting theatrical experience.

Nick is 28 and living with his long-term girlfriend, Chloe. He has started a job as a teacher; she works as a project manager. Nick has dreams which torment him – dreams involving bombs being hidden under the school where he teaches and those bombs eventually detonating, causing death and destruction. He thinks the headmaster, Mr Boyd, confirms that the bombs exist but wants to keep them hidden. Nick thinks this is reckless and endangers the lives of everyone at the school.

Should he report the bombs? What should he do?

imageWhen he confides in a colleague, Jo, she accepts that there are bombs, or that Mr Boyd is willing to use the presence of the bombs to further his own career interests. Jo does not encourage Nick to take action. She wants her own position preserved.

At the same time, Chloe wants Nick to be civil with her smooth, slightly slimy, boss, Martin. Wrapped in oily civility, Martin thinks Nick is a loser and is unchecked in his snide criticism. With safe places running out for him, in his mind, Nick seeks more and more solace in the school Maths club with fifteen year old student Jessica.

Finally, at least one of Nick’s dreams comes to pass. But it is unclear whether Nick acts positively to make that happen or circumstances simply occur in a way which makes the dream reality. Is Nick trying to justify his dreams by making them real? Or is he the victim of a conspiracy? Do dreams really come true? Or do we make our dreams come true?

Hillyard’s acutely perceptive production grapples with Birch’s themes and is hugely enjoyable. At a mere 90 minutes, there is much to think about. Roles are doubled in ways specified by Birch; this doubling is extremely effective at highlighting life’s similarities and differences and Hillyard ensures that there is always clarity about which role each performer is playing at any given time, notwithstanding sometimes very sudden switches of roles by the actors.

imageBirch specifies that the setting and sound of the play should be “Transient, non-naturalistic. Uniform and efficient like a textbook”. Designer Hyemi Shin provides a set/props which consists of a floor which looks deceptively solid and four square cubes which can be lit inside. The cubes are a source of puzzlement and views will no doubt diverge about their meaning. The most likely explanation is that the cubes represent the blocks in Nick’s life: the building blocks his life relies on for foundation (his job, his girlfriend) and the stumbling blocks which prevent him from progressing (his job, his girlfriend, his dreams, his unwillingness to grow up and take responsibility).

Nick keeps rearranging the blocks, constantly caught in a whirl of uncertainty and doubt. If that is the meaning of the cubes, it works well enough. But set design ought to be about illuminating a text, not adding a layer, especially a symbiotic one, of uncertainty to an already shifting-sand narrative. Lizzie Powell’s very effective lighting adds mood and tension extremely well and Tom Gibbons’ score and sound design does the same. There is a surprise reveal late in the play, not involving the cubes, which is made all the more remarkable by the synthesis of the work Shin, Powell and Gibbons.

Across the board, performances are excellent.

Ciarán Owens is in terrific form as nervous Nick, a kind of everyman for his generation; a generation Birch clearly feels defined by the Peter Pan effect (a refusal to grow up) and terminally aimless and introspective. Owens is charming and engaging, disturbingly so given some of the things Nick does and says. He manages the difficult task of uncertainty of motive extremely well, and you are never really sure whether Nick is victim or nutcase, although he is always tense, jangly, off-balance. His delivery of the monologues about his dreams is first-rate and he has that quicksilver ability that few have to turn from farce to tragedy in an instant.

As both Chloe and Jessica, Shvorne Marks is winning and versatile. She gives an affable, entirely reasonable veneer to Chloe which papers over the character’s self-absorption and, ultimately, ruthless representation of the disposable generation (those who think everything other than their own self-interest is disposable). As Jessica, with a simple pulling up of her socks, Marks transforms into a naïve, impressionable and willing schoolgirl. The Jessica/Nick scenes are excellent and chart Nick’s descent into incomprehension with assurance.

Alice Haig makes the most anyone could make out of no-nonsense, practical Jo, who is a career teacher, devoted to her work, but wanting always to avoid controversy. It is she who has the crucial “cat exchange” with Nick and who, unwittingly, feeds his paranoia/exposure to risk by her actions. Haig makes plain Jo’s devotion to her trade, showing that Jo does not want to be “upgraded” to a soulless Academy employee, but equally stressing her insistence on fairness, not being overburdened at work because she is devoted. Of all the characters here, Jo is the most decent and Haig ensures we see that.

imageIn a trio of roles, Vince Leigh does very fine work, clearly delineating each character, through stance and voice, and ensuring that each has a part in Nick’s trauma. As Jessica’s boyfriend, Leigh is convincing as a confused schoolboy and garners sympathy in a matter of moments, essential given that character’s final appearance. As the ubiquitous and unsettling headmaster, Mr Boyd, Leigh keeps everyone guessing exactly which side of sanity Nick inhabits. It’s a clever, well considered performance of great subtlety.

Finally, as Martin, the obnoxious alpha-male success story, so in touch with his feminine side that he has chapter and verse on water bath cooking techniques, Leigh is a comic delight. Loathing Martin, and the kind of ruthless “success” he represents, ensures real empathy for Nick’s plight (to a point) but also enables one to see beyond Chloe’s surface appeal to the darker truth at her heart. Leigh’s chameleon skill is essential to the fabric of the play and the success of Brink’s narrative.

Slight design issues aside, this is an excellently directed and performed production of a terrific piece of new writing. Its themes resonate long after the final bow has been taken.

Really worth seeing.

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The Brink
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.