In keeping with Chris O'Connell's monosyllabic titling of the constituent plays in his 1999-2003 trilogy, my abbreviated verdict is as follows: Not Too Bad. Seeing all three one-act pieces in sequence for the first time, though, reveals the possibility that O'Connell's work could be appropriated for the opposite agenda from the one towards which he inclines.
"A whirlwind of crime has ripped through the modern world," O'Connell hyperbolises in his introduction to the published texts. (The reality is that crime itself has been far outstripped by our fear of it.) So, in Car, four lads nick a car for a joyride; two of them take it over a cliff, a third cracks up, the fourth confronts the vehicle's implacable owner in a mediation session. In Raw, attempts to persuade a female teenage gangleader to pull back from terminal psychopathy fail as she persists in indulging her impulses towards ultraviolence. In Kid, Zoe and Lee try to go straight for the sake of their unborn child, try to get clear of the shadow of Lee's best friend K who killed a man (like Johnny Cash's character in the song) just to see him die, and try to prevent Zoe's gender-dysphoric younger sister from going to the bad.
Car remains as unsatisfying for me as on first viewing five years ago: it tries too hard to be virtually non-stop loud, fast and hard, self-consciously in-yer-face. Kid is an interesting and thoughtful final modulation into territory between the street and the domestic. It's Raw that I found richest, although also most erratic in its register and approach. There's no real explanation of why the mysterious older figure of Rueben (Graeme Hawley) intervenes to try to redeem young Lex; with his combination of physical bulk and inscrutability, he comes over as a kind of martial Zen figure out of a Kurosawa or Leone film. Rachel Brogan, however, is excellent as Lex, aware of the strange workings inside her head but seeing no hope in devoting effort to disentangling them.
It's easy to see the progression in O'Connell's writing ability through the trilogy (although he never quite manages to integrate set-piece speeches or exchanges with the scene around them). My reservation is that, although the trilogy is overall non-judgemental, there comes a point in each play where it's resignedly averred that some people simply are wrong 'uns who, for whatever reason, are unsalvageable, and that we can only expend so much energy on them. As a former probation officer, O'Connell knows that this is only one element in a complex picture. But as the law-and-order rhetoric ratchets up once again in Britain prior to a general election, I worry that this could be misrepresented as arguing that in many cases there's no point even trying to rehabilitate or redeem such malefactors. It would be a pity if these increasingly accomplished plays were to be so traduced.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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