The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 2nd March, 2015
It’s not every day you get invited to see a play written by a polar bear… Imagine my embarrassment when I realised that Polarbear is the pseudonym of writer Steven Camden! But even so, I’m always keen to see new work from new playwrights.
Camden’s debut piece is a three-hander about three ordinary lads from Smethwick. We spend a weekend in their company on a camping trip to Snowdonia. The trip is a goodbye adventure because one of their number, Luke (Lawrence Walker) is leaving for Leeds University on the following Monday. It’s a one-last good time story, and so a bittersweet vein runs through it.
Ostensibly, Luke is our narrator – although this task is shared almost equally among all three. It’s quick-fire stuff. The writing and the delivery have the brio of a Berkoff, albeit in Brummie accents. The actors bat the story around between them like a ball they’re trying to keep in the air. It’s very funny. Director Tessa Walker keeps that ball bouncing from hand to hand, but at times it does need to slow down just a little. Some clarity is sacrificed on the altar of speed.
Among the bickering and banter, there is a lyrical quality to the writing (again bringing Berkoff to mind) and throughout the boys’ misadventures, encounters and arguments (both heartfelt and petty), we are drawn in, by the characters and by the performers. It’s hard to say who I like more, the fictional creations or the actors bringing them to such entertaining life. Their inevitable parting at the end is poignant without being mawkish. They are to begin the next, as yet, unwritten chapters of their lives. The trio is split, never to be the same again. And that’s very sad – but part of growing up.
Lawrence Walker is very strong as undergraduate Luke, but then so are the other two. Sam Cole’s Tommy and Waleed Akhtar’s Zia come across as rounded characters, and all three actors drop into other characters with skill and ease. Akhtar’s comic timing impresses the most – we can believe Zia’s ambition of becoming a stand-up comedian.
The staging is simple – a red stepladder suggests the tent and a small ramp covered in fake grass is both the car and the Welsh countryside. Simon Bond’s lighting adds atmosphere, picking the actors out in camp firelight, as they embark on a bit of primeval dancing, helping us to paint the scenery described by the characters in our heads.
The play is a portrayal and a celebration of friendship but on another level, beneath the surface, the split of these three (one white, one Asian and one mixed-race) hints at coming divisions in society. As a microcosm for Smethwick, or indeed the UK as a whole, the three friends have rubbed along nicely for years, despite or perhaps because of their differences. It is sobering to think of them going their separate ways and something very special being lost.
Back Down is an exuberant and effective debut. I look forward to Polarbear’s next piece – like a Sealion waiting to be thrown a fish…