A couple of weeks ago [in a Financial Times review], Alastair Macaulay offered a cynical guide to writing a play for the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. A few miles away in Soho, Lin Coghlan's Mercy follows this guide at least as closely as Alastair's subject, Simon Stephens' Country Music. In fact, Mercy is in many respects Country Music only soggier, in every sense.
It's night, somewhere on the Kent marshes. Three teenage South-East London toughs have been dumped out there by some bigger lads that they crossed. Elsewhere in the vicinity, the social worker of one of them is suffering a drink-and-memory-fuelled breakdown, and an apocalyptically-minded "army cadet" has broken his 15-year-old girlfriend out of her care home. It rains. A lot. In fact, it floods, and they all converge on the same barn, and then on its roof. (Hayden Griffin's design incorporates the almost obligatory Soho ingredient, a large plane surface that can be fixed at a variety of angles.) Also involved, in increasing order of impenetrable symbolism, are a baby, a girl impaled on a fence post, a chicken and a sackful of dried monkeys.
So, the six people talk: first in smaller groups, or to themselves, or straight out at the audience, then eventually they converse as a single collective. And we hear about violence, and sex, and crime, and death, and despair, and mental problems of various kinds, and... oh, you know, the usual. But where Stephens at the Court allows all his most telling points to seep up through the gaps between the lines, Coghlan has nothing seeping but imaginary rainwater.
It's a bit of a con, too. What with the impalement, a crashed car, the rain, the darkness, strange noises and glows in the sky, and Terry's fixation with nuclear or chemical attack, there are many early hints of dystopian future-shock. But no, this is just our world and an ordinary flood. Maybe that's part of the point – everyday apocalypse – but it's hard to care one way or the other. The strange white fallout that supposedly settles on the characters turns out to be debris from a destroyed polystyrene factory. There's another symbol in there, methinks.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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