Mark Reed reviews NOVAE Theatre’s production of Grace Chapman’s play Don’t Look Away now playing at the Pleasance Theatre, London.
Don’t Look Away
Pleasance Theatre, London
In a country with deeply divergent opinions on immigration, rife with inflammatory media coverage sparking fear and distrust, Don’t Look Away, an excitingly urgent new production, aims to dissect these views and our collective response to the international refugee crisis.
The play opens in 2015 in a local community centre. Cath, a cleaner, is finishing her shift when a young Syrian man named Adnan enters her place of work, covered in flour and in desperate need of help. Cath reluctantly agrees to let the young man stay – a decision which will change her life forever. This is the essence of this exciting drama, penned by Grace Chapman and produced by NOVAE theatre, which is played out over 90 minutes at The Pleasance Theatre, Islington.
The production has a stripped back set, comprising of a kitchen unit with cabinets, a small table and two chairs. Behind the stage is a wooden frame hung with gauze, suggesting a late-modern window frame. This is used sparingly as an effective theatrical device when backlit, illuminating the actors as they peer through the gauze at the audience.
At the core of this production is a gut-wrenchingly fantastic performance from Julia Barrie as Cath. At first, we might think her naive to so readily accept Adnan into her life. Barrie’s performance, however, is so nuanced that we completely believe her every decision. She charts the development of Cath’s character finely, showing us a lonely woman starved of a connection with her son who desperately follows all the legal pathways available to help Adnan stay in the UK. But the more desperate Adnan’s situation becomes, the muddier the waters get, and the right path to follow harder to discern. Barrie’s phenomenal performance keeps us hooked throughout.
We have strong supporting performances from Robert Hannouch and Brian Fletcher. Hannouch’s portrayal of Adnan is beautifully touching, giving us an enthusiastic and charming young man who’s desperate to forge a new life in this country and be reunited with his baby sister. Fletcher gives a convincing performance as Cath’s young son, upset at his mother’s dedication to Adnan’s cause because he selfishly (yet completely understandably) expects to be the focus of her world.
The play really escalates when Jamie returns home. It builds to a thrilling climax where Cath is pushed to breaking point and forced to make an irrevocable decision.
The play’s action is punctuated with movement sequences, which form a nice counterpoint to the dialogue-driven scenes, but do tend to go on slightly too long and feel a bit clunky on occasion. The production also has one or two didactic moments where it uses its characters as a mouthpiece for the play’s central issues, rather than allowing the themes to flow through them. However, these are small qualms in a thoroughly superb production.
As I left the theatre, I wondered what I’d do if I found myself in Cath’s situation. What would I do if I had to choose between what’s right and what’s easy? I think that’s the mark of a terrific play – one that makes us question what we know of ourselves and the world around us.