When Laurie Lee, later famous for Cider with Rosie, was busking his way across Europe in order to fight in the Spanish Civil War, he discovered that the secret to attracting charity was to play his violin passably badly. If you were too eloquent and polished then everyone assumed you were a professional who did not deserve assistance; and if the playing was ear-tinglingly dire then people hurried away as quick as they could. But if you could at least hold a tune then you were given credit for plucky endeavour and rewarded accordingly.

This paradox came to mind during Sacha Wares’ production of Leo Butler’s new play at the Almeida where the presiding dilemma is how should one dramatise poverty and inarticulacy? The writer’s problem here is that too much modulated eloquence on the part of the central character endangers authenticity, but too little risks tedium and dramatic entropy. For all the technical wizardry and acting skill on display, this play never really finds a clear or consistent middle way through the thicket of presentational challenges. A play about boredom, vacancy and hopelessness – all too real situations for many – has to draw a theatre audience in by a degree of sleight of hand that was sadly absent here.

This is the story of a day in the life of teenager Liam (Frankie Fox), seen entirely from his perspective. He is 17, in a limbo between leaving school and attaining a foothold in the wider world, whether of work or benefits. He is a person who has fallen between the cracks of the system and is drifting unhappily, perhaps dangerously, on the fringes of other people’s lives. Rather as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, this is a portrait of an ordinary day in London where mostly nothing much happens in the field of action, but a world of possibilities – emotions and thoughts – is envisaged. However, because of his exclusion, practical and psychological, almost all of Liam’s attempts to link up with friends, professionals – anyone in fact – are thwarted.

Like Mrs Dalloway too this work is as much a portrait of contemporary London as it is of a single person, and in this regard the play succeeds exceptionally well through the collaboration between designers Miriam Buether and Ultz, who between them have devised the set and costumes. The audience is seated around a moving travellator on which the actors move like items of luggage on a turntable, assuming seated positions with apparently no supports. A large cast – 27 – take on a variety of small, highly contrasted roles. We move through some very crowded settings – a doctor’s surgery, a social security office, roadworks, a supermarket, an underground station and train, to more isolated encounters in a park, outside a bus stop or a neighbourhood street.

A large number of stage hands perform miracles in loading and off-loading all the significant doors, trees, check-out points, oyster card readers, store signs, and other familiar markers on London life. It is a great technical achievement of choreography for all concerned, whether actors or creatives, though at times somewhat distracting. It does not help that despite some vivid characterisations from a very talented cast the insistence on Liam’s perspective means that the other characters do not much interact with each other or indeed with him. He is a marginal flâneur, who cannot sustain a long conversation, and therefore most of the scenes are very short, with the exception of two scenes – exchanges with the mother of his friend Lamari (Sarah Niles) and with his half-sister Mysha (Ellie-Mai Gallagher) – which give a sense of what might have been accomplished.

These comments should not detract from what is a fine central performance: with little text to work with Fox is very convincing in suggesting the thoughts he cannot express and the sense of frustration, anger and despair at not being taken seriously. He conveys a crushing sense of multiple instances of exclusion, small in themselves, but cumulatively overwhelming, that is at times very moving and highly emblematic.

Yet the overall impression was one of frustrating fragmentation, of interesting encounters set up, only to see them fizzle to a dissolve into another scene change, with yet another set of possibilities on the conveyor-belt. Longer, more fully worked-through scenes would have helped a lot to crystallise the points being made. If there had been more sustained interaction between Liam and the other characters, or even between some of the secondary characters, one would have had more of a sense of the felt-experience of London life, rather than just its carapace.

At times, in fact, it almost felt as though this piece would work better as a musical in which a different medium could offer both an escape from the grimness of life and also an articulation of emotion when ordinary words had failed. If only there had been some songs, both solos and choruses, to act as gelatin to fix and emphasise the mood of a scene then the rapid succession of episodes would have registered better in the memory.

A lot of thought and stagecraft has clearly gone into this production, perhaps too much in the end, with such a focus on technical challenge of bringing the fully sensory razzle-dazzle of city life into the theatre. Another example of this lay in the sound track by Gareth Fry: street life and transport and weather noise were very well evoked; but there was also a fairly continuous metallic beat, whether a heart-beat or a symbol of relentless, unsleeping urban mechanism, that often self-defeatingly masked the lines of the actors. A bit less would have been more.

At the end of the play Liam is invited to imagine the next five years and he simply cannot – the blankness of his present stretches forward as a pea-soup of a foggy future. This should be a moment of great poignancy, but it is not fully earned unfortunately by what has gone before. What we see, hear, and witness has many merits but still seems more a series of impressive tableaus or artistic installations than a finished dramatic structure.

There is an exceptional programme accompanying the play with a series of interviews between creatives and cast members on the one hand and child care professionals on the other. These unpartisan exchanges cast a more searching spotlight on the very real crisis of child poverty in London than was shone in the play itself, and offer very practical suggestions for assisting young adults such as Liam, who so tragically fail to be noticed by all the family, friends, and professionals allegedly looking out for them, while ‘another hundred people just got off of the train…’.

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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…