Following its premiere at the Liverpool Everyman in 2012, Frank McGuinness’ new play heads to London to play at the Tricycle Theatre – and it deserves its transfer. This searing production is a delight, although more subtle direction might have led to a more powerful production.
Frank McGuinness has pedigree when it comes to writing the hard-to-watch – Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme is hardly a giggle-riot, and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me left me with a profound sense of sadness, yet each of these (arguably his two most famous pieces) speak volumes about the indomitability of the human spirit. In the same way, the lead (and only) character in The Match Box, Sal, spends over an hour and a half showing the depth of her spirit and resolve, only here the outcome is less positive.
Sal, who is pacing in a rural cottage on an Irish isle, describes her journey there: from growing up in Britain through the tragic loss of her daughter to the incident that forced her to leave for her native Ireland. As long monologues go, McGuinness has managed to pack in a lot of detailed story, and Leanne Best’s spirited delivery does much to keep the piece engaging. It tends to be a little dry for the first third, but it’s mostly exposition, and there’s a sense that this is unavoidable, considering the detail of the rest of the piece.
This isn’t just a character study: it’s a study of revenge, of sadness and of anger. While Sal originally comes across a wee bit cheeky – if anything, a little too smiley (I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to Sally Hawkins’ character in Happy-Go-Lucky) – the tragic death of her daughter through wanton violence sends her to a very dark place. As she struggles to comprehend her daughter’s death, Sal’s focus soon reverts to the gangland boys who killed her (by accident), and it’s left ambiguous as to what part she played in their deaths shortly thereafter. However, the nature of their deaths and the titular matches she continually lights, one after another, throughout the piece not only set a grim beat to proceedings, but also hint at her culpability.
Somewhere between a vengeful Electra and a resolute Kate McCann, Sal’s struggle is not just with what has happened, but how it has changed her; by the end, all traces of the bright, energetic woman we met at the beginning are subsumed into a twitchy, mournful wreck – she starts hearing voices after the accident, and there are subtle hints at first that the audience are the voices in her head she’s speaking to – a lovely twist on the dramatic convention of the fourth wall, and a nice touch by director Lia Williams.
But that doesn’t solve the issues that stop this piece from being as searing and as powerful as it could be. It’s too long, which is a shame, because it isn’t a problem that’s easily fixable: the early detail allows for more context during and after the accident, which is nice, but such a long monologue is a big ask. Leanne Best does a lovely job as Sal, but her transition from bouncy to mad is so extreme that it feels rather telegraphed. She’s also a little young to be a grieving mother – well, obviously not too young biologically, but her youth makes the piece more raw where, perhaps, a quiet devastation would have been more effective. It’s perhaps most telling that the script is dedicated to Sorcha Cusack – I can see how it might be more effective from an actress of her years.
This rawness seems to have affected most other areas of production – Colin Richmond’s set is severely run down, which felt a little over the top, just as Giles Perring’s sound design is just a bit too screechy. Lia Williams’ direction is intense, but over-animated – and the more explicit audience interaction towards the end jars with the subtlety of earlier moments. Charlie Lucas’ lighting, on the other hand, is beautifully subtle – he captures excellently day turning into night through the door and window, drawing the eye closer to Sal as the light becomes sparse.
There is much to praise, and this is certainly worth seeing for a powerful central performance. It’s a fantastic script, with plenty of audition material for young women looking at drama school auditions – if only Williams’ approach had been more tempered.