Sometimes a great experience catches you by surprise. Monday night; a small room upstairs at the Green Man Gallery; and a theatre company tweeting about a “scratch” performance (it didn’t say that in the programme!) So my expectations weren’t high. But if you combine an intelligent script, a compelling performance and evocative sound design, the alchemy can produce theatrical gold.
We find Thomas on a station platform, waiting for a train to arrive and about to do something momentous. The setting is very bare, but the sound effects set the scene effectively; a recorded voice reads out the kind of signs you’d expect to see on a platform, but gradually they are interspersed with commentaries about control. Thomas is smartly-dressed and at pains to stress how normal he is, but he is very earnest and precise, and we are in no doubt that control is important to him.
The genius of David Coggins’ script is in how Thomas reveals both more and less about himself than he realises. We may initially chuckle at his over-the-top fastidiousness, yet we come to identify with him, while still wondering what lies beneath. From early on, I wondered what Thomas was hiding. And as we gradually find out more, hints from early in the play come back into shocking focus.
The precision of the writing is a joy, and it works perfectly in two ways. It defines Thomas’ character – he is Thomas not Tommo, he is self-righteous and judgemental. But the audience delights also in the accuracy of the observations – recognising the truth in Thomas’ remarks about the Sun stuffed down between dashboard and windscreen of the white van, or the mother shouting at her child – and are drawn in to sharing his opinions.
A clever script is one thing, but it needs an actor to bring it to life, and Sam Grogan is superb. The meticulousness of the text is matched in his characterisation of Thomas as exact and exacting; despite the rigidity of his views and his self-justifications, we come to like him. Grogan is an engaging presence, and we are drawn into siding with the character well beyond the point at which the warning signs planted early in the script have developed into clanging alarm bells. The intensity is lifted as Grogan deftly switches in and out of other characters, particularly Thomas’ work colleagues. Their types are instantly recognisable to us, but the performance also highlights how Thomas sees them.
Different scenes are set by Stephen Hull’s sound design, rather than the changing of the physical set. Simple lighting changes introduce brief breaks in the onstage action, for recordings that tell of an incident which shows a different more caring side to Thomas – yet underscores some obsessions that come to the fore as the play develops.
This play really has it all: wonderful writing, very funny yet utterly chilling, coupled with first-class acting and design. The only thing lacking is a little confidence by the company – a “scratch” performance? Have more belief. You’ve made something very special here.