Duelling with Death | No Quarter by Polly Stenham (Network Theatre)

Fleeing a world he has rejected, Robin finds solace in his music and the sanctuary of his remote family home. But as his kingdom begins to crumble around him, how far will he go to save it and at what cost?

For a company of just three years old, Duelling Productions have brought an impressively high calibre of performance and startling creativity to the London stage with their latest production, Polly Stenham’s gritty family drama No Quarter. Described by a Guardian journalist as the theatrical expert on dysfunctional families, Stenham once again manages somehow to fit a lifetime’s worth of drama and tension into a rapid yet tidy ninety minutes.

Miranda Wilson as Lily

It is difficult to describe the feeling of lead in my belly as I watched a loving son assist his mother in her suicidal escape from dementia. Having lost two grandparents to Alzheimer’s, I felt an incredibly strong kinship with Robin as he struggled to relieve her from the pain of a life in which she would always be stuck in limbo, still alive but as a mere shell of the mad and powerful woman she once was. Not only was it hauntingly reminiscent of my own grandmother’s final years as a ghost of the Mimi I once knew, but would also tug at the heartstrings of any Terry Pratchett fan: after his own diagnosis with Alzheimers’, the beloved writer sought a way out in much the same fashion. A comment in the final moments of the play in which Robin mentions Lily’s love of language echoes this nightmare of any artist losing their ability to create. Although we see very little of Lily’s deterioration, Ryan Whittle’s portrayal of Robin, the reclusive ‘Peter Pan on crack’, is agonizing in its intensity. Hiding out in the family manor where he was born, raised and even educated, Robin’s descent away from his misguided narcissism and into his own tortured soul is painful and evocative. I continue to be amazed at the incredible ability of actors to make other hearts break. Ryan Whittle seems to be an expert at this.

Ryan Whittle as Robin and Rosalie Kosky as Coby

Thespians love to say that there are no small characters, only small actors, and this is at the very heart of Stenham’s work. As with all her plays, No Quarter provides characters of extraordinary complexity; meaty roles for an actor to really sink their teeth into. When chatting to Freddie Thorp after the show, he mentioned his struggle to bring any sort of depth to Arlo, and commented that it seems as if Stenham gave Arlo a monologue simply to give him more to say (I’m paraphrasing here). I could not disagree more. Arlo and his twin sister Scout (Evie Killip) vie for Robin’s attention and approval, and exemplify the compelling mystery that draws others to him. Arlo also brings tense moments of classism to the story’s subplot through his engagement with the drug-dealer Tommy, finely complementing the notions of privilege that pepper this text. ‘Small roles’ are arguably the most important in such a dark drama, and doing them justice is no small feat. Although Arlo may be a small role, Freddie Thorp is by no means a small actor. Nor, it must be said, is Rosalie Kosky, whose portrayal of the lovestruck teenager Coby is both energetic and grounded. Bearing a strong resemblance to Tanya and Pea in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Coby sees very little stage time but is again a vital addition to the development of the core characters and plot. Duelling Productions’ mission to ‘support and harness emerging talent’ and commitment to young actors is rewarded with the appearance of these two exceptionally talented individuals.

Freddie Thorp as Arlo (left) and Ryan Whittle as Robin (right)

With an additional two rows of seating onstage, remarkable movement direction by Jasmine Ricketts, and a cleverly multifaceted set, this production design hinted at a strong influence from Jeremy Herrin and Bunny Christie’s recent collaboration in People, Place’s & ThingsPolly Stenham’s plays are open to variety in interpretation, and director/designer Jamie Manton has managed to create magical aesthetics in this tiny and simply very weird venue. It is never promising when you have to pass through a locked gate and wander down a smelly tunnel in the bowels of Waterloo station to find a stage space, but once I did find it, the Network Theatre is in fact the ideal place for a play that sees the mental deterioration of a dysfunctional privileged family in a shabby old house. Manton and his team have created an environment that is not only visually stunning in its own right, but that lends itself incredibly well to a performance of such raw emotion and energy.

Ryan Whittle as Robin (front) and George Watkins as Oliver

Productions like this are the reason why I began this blog: I wanted to write about how theatre makes me feel, rather than analyse technicalities and judge quality. Theatre, to me, is about truth, and if the creators of a play can make you truly feel something, honestly and viscerally, then they have done their job. Duelling Productions have achieved this to an outstanding degree with No Quarter, and I am eager to see what they next bring to both stage and screen.

No Quarter by Polly Stenham
Directed and Designed by Jamie Manton
Network Theatre London, 13th-16th July 2016

[All photos by Jamie Scott-Smith]

[Thank you to http://www.TheatreBloggers.co.uk for this opportunity!]

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