OneStopArts.com / Review / Writing: Journalism

Labfest 2012: Only Human (***)

The first in LabFest 2012, Theatre503’s mini-season of ‘fearless’ new writing, Only Human examines relationships across class, age and ethical viewpoints, although the tension and excitement is derailed by slightly flabby writing and too much leaping through time and space – interesting, but not riveting. At Theatre503.

Before launching into this, a quick word on LabFest – it’s wonderful to see Theatre503 acknowledging its roots and staging exciting new writing, and it’s a pleasure to see such a high calibre of performers taking part: it’s always lovely to see the promotion of new writers (where else will the new plays come from?), and 503 still prove themselves as the premier platform to launch the careers of the young and the hopeful.

However, there are traditional issues with ‘new writing’. Plays that have yet to be bathed in the harsh glare of a professional stage, where their inadequacies and inaccuracies are suddenly clear (even if they looked fine on the page) are never as sharp as they could be, never as refined. They are often trying to be various different pieces at once and are rarely exciting beyond the over-used and under-valued promise of ‘potential’. And it pains me to say it, but Only Human falls into each and every one of those traps with brutal inevitability.

First off, the story of an older man and a stripper falling in love is not necessarily original, but their scenes zing with promised energy and power – nothing new, but I was hooked by it, and it was something I could sink my teeth into. A lot of this is down to Pearl Mackie and Euan MacNaughton’s powerful performances (both proving their excellent credits), but the writing also pulses – witty one-liners, powerful pauses and that pleasantly unnatural flow of staged naturalism that takes real skill to write well: hats off to Rose Lewenstein here.

But then it all starts to bloat and ooze out of control: a subplot featuring Jack Donnelly and Sophie Cosson as the older man’s daughter and her boyfriend is given too much time and has no subtext whatsoever, and the resulting moments between the boyfriend and the stripper don’t really amount to much at all – artificial peril at best. There are also too many scenes, too many scene changes and too much time passing – this whole plot could have taken place over a week or two and been really quite powerful, but instead it languishes over the course of a year. You don’t need to be bound by classical unities, but if you want any tension to your story, set it over a shorter period of time and remove the extraneous! This could be a tense and powerful one hour piece. Instead, it’s flabby and needs trimming – a lot of trimming.

However, the moments that work are strong, and Lewenstein has captured fantastic dialogue. Her writing veers towards the over-extended (various speeches are rather trite and go on for too long), but that dreaded ‘promise’ is lurking there – if not in this script once chopped and tidied up, then certainly in the next.

Before I finish – I’ve managed to go this entire review without mentioning the on-stage stripping, but I will end on it – Pearl Mackie is undoubtedly brave to be doing it, and it’s nice to see a play where the script demands it, but doesn’t feel exploitative – excellently handled. It’s rare to see such a topic so tactfully portrayed..

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