The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th March, 2019
It’s closing time in a backstreet pub in Doncaster, and mild-mannered barman Simon and his staff are tidying up. The peace is shattered by pounding at the door. It’s Simon’s best mate, former squaddie Ray, ex-husband of Simon’s lady friend Carla, demanding to be let in for a lock-in. Against their better judgment, they let him in, and what should be an after-hours drinking session turns into more of a hostage situation.
Ray is a bully and boor, a walking war zone with an extremely short fuse and a nasty sense of humour. We laugh, uncomfortably – in case he turns on us, it feels like! The humour is very dark and comes a distant second to the tension in this intimate, intimidating piece. Director Tracey Street makes us feel as though we are in the pub with them, pitching the sudden changes of mood perfectly to keep us on edge. It’s a gruelling experience and an irresistible one.
Dominic Thompson is in great form as barman Simon, nervous and timid upon Ray’s arrival, before dredging up some inner strength along with some unsavoury details about Ray’s wartime experiences in Afghanistan. Karendip Phull is suitably dim as teenage barmaid Leanne in a well-observed portrayal, and Sophie Handy is heartbreaking as the ex-wife, embittered and standing her ground while still having feelings for her troubled ex. She storms it, in fact.
Inevitably, perhaps, the show belongs to Ray. In a towering performance, Paul Findlay brings this psychotic, damaged individual to scary life, dominating the scene, oozing menace and lashing out. And yet, such is the power of Cat Jones’s writing, Tracey Street’s direction and Findlay’s rounded performance, we actually feel for the man, as we learn about his harrowing past. The play highlights the damage, the PTSD, inflicted on soldiers. As Carla wryly observes, if he’d come back with his legs off, everyone could see it. Mental trauma is invisible.
Tautly presented, this discomfiting piece packs quite a wallop. A superlative cast and a director who can orchestrate mood swings like a symphony deliver this sordid and powerful story in a production it is difficult to fault. I emerge feeling punch-drunk and exhausted from the tension – just like a proper night out!