Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH • Northern Stage @ Oxford Playhouse [tour] • 2008

ourfriendsOur Friends In The North [DVD] [1996]

When the lights go up on Our Friends in the North they illuminate an assorted cast – young men and old, the wealthy and the jobless. The play opens with a Shakespearean soliloquy by Roy Johnson, police officer and self-appointed moralist, recalling a minor incident involving a black Rover and a broken bicycle. The four young men implicated are all young and naïve to begin with, but by the end of the play they are forced to confront their radically different courses in life.

Throughout the evening characters negotiate with the power given to them and the power they desire. Some are violent in their desires, some are disillusioned and others are tragic, pathetic and bigoted in turn. Writer Peter Flannery must be praised for the diversity of his characters and a fine sense of individuation. The characters rarely descend into stereotypes, though a few avoid stereotyping by just a hair’s breadth.

The cast deserve particular praise for unanimously strong performances. Matthew Flynn as Benny is commanding in his too-sharp suit, an exploitative and aggressive pimp. Austin Donohue, a pivotal figure in the play, is played superbly by Neil Phillips, an actor who is able to capture moments of violent, deeply felt passion and of specious self-justification equally well. His performance manages to elicit sympathy right to the end, an admirable feat for a character whose actions are often cowardly and self-deceiving.

Sonia Beinroth plays perhaps the most sympathetic character of the night in Rusty, a dancer turned crack whore who evokes sympathy as the hapless victim of the power struggles around her. At times she exudes a tough charm, pulling chewing gum out of her mouth, little concerned with politeness (Eliza Doolittle for the 1970s), and at others she is like a blind, stricken animal, stumbling miserably across the stage with tatty hair and broken body. Beinroth is utterly convincing throughout and her performance alone is reason to reserve a seat.

Our Friends in the North moves quickly through the years, despite its length, and the rotating steel box which dominates the stage captures the play’s conflicted sense of change and progress. Although the years roll on and the location varies, the cancer of corruption has spread malignantly to every part of public and private life, from the parliament antechamber to The Met, from strip bar to Rhodesian farm. Erica Whyman’s intelligent decision to double, treble and quadruple roles reinforces the pervasive pessimism of the play. By using the same actors (Rod Arthur, Rod Culbertson) to play corrupt characters, the audience has a strong sense that the only thing to have changed is the cut of their suits.

But although the performances are strong, the play itself has some weaknesses which limit it. It explores the question of justice and paints a dramatic picture of injustice but it is a fundamentally unshocking play whose conclusion doesn’t cover up the fact that it expresses nothing deeper than frustrated utopianism turning to jaded pragmatism. If the intention is to somehow shock and educate an audience about corruption in British society, it seems a bit passé, alternating between the mundane and the sensationalist. However, Northern Stage still have an exceptional dramatic achievement of which to be proud.

Jason Millar © 2008

Originally published on R&V on 13-03-08

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