FREE FOR ALL
mac, Birmingham, Friday 29th January, 2016
I get invited to lots of shows – and I’m grateful – and I was happy to receive an invitation from this show’s writer, Richard O’Brien (not that one) to come along and review his play, written entirely in verse. He is keen to revive this approach to theatre – after all, even old Shakespeare wasn’t averse to the odd rhyming couplet (and the rest!). Having seen the remarkable King Charles III last year, the futuristic history play in which the blank verse and poetic imagery elevates the royal characters from mere Hello magazine content to something more regal, I was keen to see how iambic pentameter would serve a different world – I say ‘serve’ deliberately, because form ought to be secondary to content.
In this case, the content involves an open day at a local school, in which local businessmen and a technology company are deeply, financially invested. A mixed bunch of parents and their teenage children arrive and concerns are aired – not least by jaded leftie Kerry (Katie Beth Stubbs), who decries the move away from local authority control. The play is a biting satire of the educational system and the impotence of the Left to combat this, or any other, stripping away of ‘the public good’ in favour of private enterprise. The characters set out their stalls pretty clearly, stating their views, but this is more than agitprop and caricature.
Overseeing and tampering with events is the ghost of Anthony Crosland, played with relish by Matthew Bretton. It seems ghosts and verse drama are inextricably linked! The strong cast includes Gareth Bernard as the crass cowboy builder who cut corners in the construction of the school, Rebecca Martin as his gaudy wife, and Louis Osborne as their son Struan. The playing is broader than naturalism, to fit the comic styling as well as the sometimes-heightened language; it’s just that the Hexagon space at mac is a very intimate space, indeed. Director Rebecca Martin puts us in the action and keeps that action fast-paced. There are many hilarious moments, born of the witty script, the actors’ delivery, and the directors’ staging – the low-tech supernatural interferences are a scream, and the ‘respawning’ (characters getting ‘shot’ and getting up again) in the video-game scenes are nicely done.
Chauncey Alan’s Torben, the head, is all PR patter and feel-good spiel, a salesman more than an educator, evangelising about the school’s top-of-the-range facilities. When he gets his comeuppance, form and content are perfectly married; his florid speech is undermined by the projecting of a sex tape (involving him and journalist Jenny in some Keystone Kops-type acts of congress).
O’Brien’s writing is excellent. He gets across a lot of points and for the most part, the blank verse is nestled within the dialogue. Only in the longer speeches does it become more obvious, but we are reminded this is a verse play when Crosland’s ghost speaks in doggerel, and when star pupil ‘Starfish’ (Heidi McElrath) goes off on one – reminding me of the witches’ spell in Macbeth.
Funny, trenchant and relevant, Free For All is a delight, simply but effectively staged. Haunted House theatre company is justified in its pursuit of reviving verse plays for the stage. And, it turns out, I’m not a-verse to it, either. Heh.