The Darker Side of the Friend Zone | After the End by Dennis Kelly (Alec Clegg Studio)

“This is what you’re making me do. This is what you are making me do to you to help you.”

After the End is about as uncomfortable to watch as Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. However, Dennis Kelly does not rely on gruesome physical torture carried out by a psychotic faux-doctor to enthral his audience. What he creates within the confines of a cold and sparsely furnished nuclear bomb shelter plays on something far more sinister and cruel, because it is something we can relate to. The relationship between Mark and Louise (portrayed by Nick Bechman and Madeleine Gray) is one of power, the brutal sort that forces us to question what we would do to one another if there were no consequences.

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[Madeleine Gray (left) and Nick Bechman (right) | Photo by Izzy Kynoch]

Louise wakes up in a nuclear bomb shelter, fully stocked for the end of the world, having been rescued by her work colleague Mark: he is her saviour, and she owes him her life. Their relationship is reminiscent of that which exists between the popular nice girl and the class weirdo in any American high school drama. While Louise was beloved by their workmates, Mark existed on the margins, and his frustration with Louise’s popularity is clear. He loves her, and in his mind, there is no fathomable reason why it would not be requited. The version of her that he is in love with is the version he created in his head, and in saving her from the apocalypse, he has created an ideal scenario in which she might return his love. This was chilling to observe because it is not something completely foreign. It is not simply the workings of a psychotic madman; it is something that happens on small and large scales every day. It is the darkest and sourest corner of the ‘Friend Zone’. It reflects strongly the debt which men often feel is owed to them by women for doing what is common curtesy or what is simply required to be a decent human being. “I could really hurt you. If I was a bad person.” This line comes softly from Mark’s mouth dripping with venom, as he strokes the ends of her hair, and it chilled me to the bone. As their power dynamic shifts, their circumstance becomes more and more unstable. It is uncomfortable, and it is difficult. I felt as trapped in the audience as the characters were in the bunker.

[Madeleine Gray and Nick Bechman | Photo by Izzy Kynoch]

Since seeing them in their first show together over two years ago, I have thought of Madeleine Gray and Nick Bechman as the cream of the crop of Leeds University actors. Both now in their final year of university, this will sadly be the last time they will be seen on stage together. It takes an actor of incredible strength to do justice to these roles. It is not an easy play, and I am astounded at the level of energy and connection between them. There was a particular moment towards the end of the play that made me feel physically nauseous, and as I dug my nails into my arm I wondered how the hell two students can bear to perform it. It is incredible to see two actors in their early twenties throw themselves so fully into such emotionally and physically draining roles, and I commend them for their dedication and commitment.

First-time director Hugo Salter is a stickler for details, and it is those minute specifics that give such a relatable and thus terrifying effect. Every breath, every hesitation, every ‘um’ and ‘er’ matters in a script where the dialogue ebbs and flows as much as this. Much like Cleansed, its power lay in the fact that it felt so real. It is as much a credit to Hugo and co-director Charlie Norburn as it is to the actors and designers, for creating a space that left its audience powerless to intervene in the atrocities played out before them.

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[Madeleine Gray (left) and Co-Director Hugo Salter | Photo by Izzy Kynoch]

This is Frontline Theatre’s first production, an ambitious and creative endeavour which I wholly applaud. Founding artistic director Hugo Salter and his production team for this production have reached to incredible heights and pushed both themselves and their actors to their limits to pull it off. I am eager to see what the future holds for them.

After the End by Dennis Kelly
Frontline Theatre Company
Directed by Hugo Salter and Charlie Norburn
Alec Clegg Studio, 10th, 11th and 13th May 2016
Tickets available from the Stage@Leeds box office: 0113 343 8730

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