Motortown

Fri 5th – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Ryan Sarsfield

at 10:33 on 7th Aug 2011

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One would usually expect a play based on the Iraq War to take an explicitly political stance, by which I mean an explicitly anti-war stance. The tag line of Simon Stephens’s ‘Motortown’, ‘I don’t blame the war, the war was alright’, is therefore intriguing.

For the first half an hour you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Motortown’ has absolutely no connection to the war at all; rather, centred around the dysfunctional relationship between Danny (James Dartford) and Marley (Daisy Rodger), the play felt like a mix of Eastenders and Skins – no bad thing, I hasten to add. The story is engaging and all cast members’ acting is impeccable; this is a well-rehearsed piece and it shows. It is, however, as Danny’s mental decline – brilliantly charted by James Dartford – becomes more apparent that ‘Motortown’ descends into a harrowing exploration of the effects of war and the extent to which we are all responsible for its effects, whether directly or indirectly involved.

Charlie O’Reardon’s production of the play is minimal in its set and subtle in its symbolism. The whole cast sit around the stage for the whole performance, yet the acting is far too absorbing and convincing to reach Brechtian levels of anti-naturalism. The torn Union Flag draped across the back of the stage subtly illustrates the view of Britain today being presented; however it is left unclear to the end as to whether this is the actual view Stephens wishes to portray, or whether this is the view projected by Danny’s increasingly instable mind – again, a positive of the script which opens up the play to vast debate.

Joe McDonnell’s Paul provides a valuable contrast to Danny – a caricatured druggie pseudo-philosopher, he adds to the play darkly comic edge and his introduction marks the play’s transition into a twisted psychological portrait of Danny and the wider society in which he finds himself.

Of particular note is Mia Hatfield’s Jade. The incredibly brutal scenes between her and Danny, whilst being hugely uncomfortable to watch, cement ‘Motortown’ as an intentionally disturbing and thought-provoking piece of theatre. Mia Hatfield’s breakdown on stage was truly impressive and the, albeit cruel and twisted, interaction between her and James Dartford was one of the best bits of performance I have ever seen.

The play ends with no curtain call, just Danny standing, crying, in a spotlight, whilst the rest of the cast have resumed their original positions – absorbed in their own individual lives. The effect cannot help but make the audience feel uncomfortable. Exeter University Theatre Company’s production of ‘Motortown’ combines the familiarity of a soap with the defamiliarity of an experience which few of us can comprehend; yet it is an experience in which we are all implicated. The result is a play which resounds for hours afterwards.

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May Anderson

at 14:23 on 7th Aug 2011

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The Exeter University Theatre Company have won plaudits before for bringing the work of Simon Stephens to the stage and they have once again shown the startling results of combining an extraordinarily talented group of young actors with a disturbing and enthralling piece of modern theatre. ‘Motortown’ centres around the experiences of Danny who having recently returned from service in Basra struggles to find a place in a civilian society that seems more conflicted then the war zone he has just left. Played with considered intensity by James Dartford, who veers convincingly between being the locus of the audience’s sympathies and at another time, our fear – he does a first-rate job of bringing us into Danny’s fractured psyche. One scene in which he aims a gun into the audience made my heart race a little faster, such was the blankness of his stare as he held the gun aloft.

At first I felt the decision to bookend every scene with The Streets ‘Blinded by the Lights’ was a gimmicky attempt to make the play seem as contemporary as possible, but by around halfway through the play the power and significance of the song to the play’s portrait of contemporary life really hit home and the music was inextricable from the emotional impact of the play. Of course, the performances in this uniformly strong group also packed an emotional punch. Mia Hatfield’s performance as the tough on the exterior but emotionally vulnerable Jade was frighteningly good and she managed to convince me at least that beneath her street-wise manner there resided a scared fourteen-year old girl that was becoming increasingly out of her depth. Tom Chapman as Danny’s brother Lee provided the perfect foil to Danny’s explosive rage, as we saw that struggle with modern living was not confined to those who had experienced the horrors of war. Whilst Lee had turned his pain inward, Danny had let his turn outward to devastating effect and I applaud the way in which Chapman makes us see the error of sympathising too readily with Danny’s predicament.

The staging of ‘Motortown’ was simple and effective with every actor seated onstage for the whole of the performance – a fact that could have been distracting but proved ingenious as Danny seemed always watched and judged by the presence of his peers making it harder and harder to sympathise with our wayward protagonist. ‘Motortown’ is incredibly deserving of your patronage. Impeccably acted and intensely effective, it deserves to find a large audience at this year’s Fringe.

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