The quality of the acting in Parliament Square ensures a three-star rating overall, but without that this piece remains a continuously frustrating exercise that plays with important themes in inconsequential ways that reveal the hurried circumstances of its composition. Better, frankly, to pick up a copy of Conrad’s The Secret Agent where these themes of how to find existential meaning through extreme acts are still given lastingly memorable shape.

ParliamentThis newish play by James Fritz won a prize a couple of years ago in the Bruntwood Playwriting Awards though composed, reputedly, only a few days before the deadline. As such it contains many promising themes but none of them sufficiently developed to convince dramatically even across the relatively short time-span of an hour and twenty minutes. That said, there is some terrific acting in the main roles that gives you a sense of what might have been.

The play divides into three sections each governed by the number fifteen. In the first a young woman, Kat (Esther Smith) leaves her husband and young daughter at the crack of dawn and takes a train to London in order to douse and immolate herself with petrol in Parliament Square. All as a protest against what is wrong with the world.

The most skilful writing is located here on the journey to London as the split in her personality is successfully dramatized by a conversation with an alter-ego (Lois Chimimba) who provides the internal spur and drive to steel her to go through with the deed. This is a very psychologically plausible depiction of the switch-back of emotions and possibilities that must go through the mind of someone bent on a deed of deliberate destruction whether of self or others…

ParliamentDirector Jude Christian finds a telling correlate for it too in the way the character packs away a sequence of domestic objects scattered across the stage arena, thereby turning her back on the friends and family who desperately try to contact her before the suicide attempt takes place.

But we are given no explanation or account of motivation and this act of abstraction immediately saps the dramatic pulse and distances the audience from the action. For all of Smith’s energy and charm in the end the randomness of the act simply puzzles rather than engages.

After ‘Fifteen Seconds’ (allegedly the time it takes for nerve endings to be destroyed by traumatic burns), comes a middle section, ‘Fifteen Steps’, devoted to Kat’s rehabilitation in hospital. Her life has been saved by the swift intervention of a passer-by, and the letter explaining her actions has been destroyed so her act has had no public echo and attained no notice.

ParliamentAgain Smith impresses at her depiction of agonising pain within the symbolic constriction of tight bandaging: a beautiful piece of technical acting. But the frustrations surrounding the handling of the issues only mount.

We see the reactions of Kat’s mother, husband, and daughter, and those of medical professionals, but again they lack focus and depth except when lent it by some excellent acting, especially from Joanne Howarth, as the anguished, incomprehending mother.

The inarticulacy of motive and meaning continues, and not just on Kat’s side. The case for living life to the fullest extent despite the horrors of the world is spelt out in wholly conventional, if not trite, terms; so once more one only cares to a very limited extent about the protagonists because the arguments are so tepid.

ParliamentIf Kat’s act turns out to be simply foolish and self-serving, a vain grasping at meaning in a meaningless world, then the alternative of creating meaning through service or community or individual action hardly gets an airing either.

In the final section ‘Fifteen Years’, the birthdays of Jo, Kat’s daughter, punctuate a growing sense of a return to conventional norms on the part of the core family, while the world continues its dystopian way. Finally things tip over into melodrama in the final scene, as the girl who saved Kat’s life contemplates exactly the same action from which Kat tries to persuade her.

Despite some fine emotional projection by Serafina Beh as Catherine, this character’s trajectory from saviour to martyr seems wholly unearned and unargued for within the matrix of the play. Rarely does a final climax seem so anti-climactic and forced – which is a shame when both acting and detailed, well-articulated lighting and special effects, produce memorable visuals.

ParliamentBeyond the actors mentioned there are skilful contributions from Damola Adelaja as bemused and distraught husband, Tommy, Jamie Zubairi in a variety of professional roles, and Kelly Hotten, who neatly differentiates between a ditzy friend who nearly rumbles Kat on the train to London, and a fearsome physio who outwits and manipulates Kat into pursuing the ‘fifteen steps’ back to walking and reasonable health after her life-changing injuries.

What is frustrating about this play is that it could not be more topical while still pulling its punches in most important areas. The question of how to find meaning and significance in a world that daily seems to demonstrate evidence of neither is ever more pressing, yet one finds few suggestions of answers here.

The determination to pursue interplay of character without genuine arguments creates a strange sort of laboratory experiment in which one is looking at the characters at one remove, without much care about what happens to them. Most of the possible positions are hinted at, but few are investigated with any depth.

ParliamentThe quality of the acting in this work ensures a three-star rating overall, but without that this piece remains a continuously frustrating exercise that plays with important themes in inconsequential ways that reveal the hurried circumstances of its composition. Better, frankly, to pick up a copy of Conrad’s The Secret Agent where these themes of how to find existential meaning through extreme acts are still given lastingly memorable shape.

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Parliament Square
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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…