The opening night of England Street at the Burton Taylor left its audience stunned. The BT proved once again that a small stage, dominated by several talented actors, can come together to great effect.
The spooky set was enough to grab anyone’s attention, even before Darren Kuppan’s Ali and Ali Watt’s Brennan came crashing onto the stage. Minimal sound effects were needed to set an incredibly tense scene. Kuppan and Watt skilfully portrayed the terror of their two characters. The set may have warned us that we were about to embark into an eerie, dystopian world, but only the actors brought to life the true haunting nature of the play.
Watt and Kuppan face the challenge of playing characters with ceaselessly interweaving dialogue, but the casual viewer would never guess how many hours they must have spent perfecting their lines. As the two seamlessly finish each other’s thoughts and bounce off each other’s every sentence, we are left in no doubt that Ali and Brennan are brothers in the strongest sense of the word. What perversely seems to heighten the terror that keeps the audience so fixed are the occasional moments of comedy that pass between them. “Don’t drop me,” Ali tells his ‘big doughnut’ of a brother, “coz last time, remember, I couldn’t sit for a week”. The comic streak running through the play further develops the strong relationship between the two characters.
It is this relationship that, above all, carries the production. A layer of depth is added by the fact that Brennan is “special”. Watt pulls out all the stops to bring to life a character that intertwines a mentally disabled man’s childish blabber with outbursts of deep insight, only possible for one who sees the world as differently as Brennan does. Each time Brennan makes demands for a chocolate bar, one cannot help but be drawn in by the perfect mix of frustration and loving care in Kuppan’s Ali.
After the stealthy arrival of the last character (Katie Moore’s Rhianna) on stage, the scene has finally been fully set, transporting the audience into the vitality of these characters and ushering them towards the explosive end. It is a shame that Moore’s first entrance is a little too fleeting. Through Brennan’s constant cries for “Rhi-Rhi” and detailed accounts of her “shiny-sparkly earrings” that shine “like the stars”, let alone Ali’s strained responses at her every mention, her character has already been firmly heralded as vital to the play’s opening duo; it is somewhat surprising that her initial entrance is quite so negligible.
Her swift retreat is entirely overshadowed by Ali and Brennan’s “anniversary”. In this touching scene their words take us back to an England that we would recognise and the chain of events that left the two boys without a mother and the country without any form of unity. The powerful script here really comes into its own. Kuppan and Watt deliver impressive performances, complementing one another perfectly. Kuppan gives a heart-rending account of the last breakfast and journey to school, whilst Watt’s Brennan perfects the pitiable scene with his occasional and poignant interjections full of childish wisdom and insight.
But it is Rhianna’s second entrance that completes the puzzle for us, once and for all. This time, we see Moore flourishing in her part, as she effortlessly stretches the psychologically tense finale to breaking point. A particularly strong emotion point to watch for occurs between her and Kuppan.
A riddle solved, a gun, a shot. With the harrowing ending to contend with, the audience is asked to question how it defines brotherhood, and to sympathise with victims as well as perpetrators in a world where everyone is an outlaw of bona-fide society.
PHOTO / Polly Ingham