(Written for Culture Wars)
Failure should be an option in off-West End theatres like the Bush, particularly in ones in which such a large emphasis is placed on new writing. Here, that option is taken.
“Kingfisher Blue” comes on like a gritty, urban, issues-based play – all dodgy plumbers and East End London council estates – yet it soon becomes apparent that the writer Lin Coghlan doesn’t have a clue which issue she’s confronting. is it working class drug abuse, or escaping the social stratum into which you’re born, or is it paedophilia, or suicide, or predatory homosexuals? Themes are touched on, then ignored, making the whole experience rather cheap and draining. Above all, though, there’s a sense of complete hopelessness that is impossible to shake. It’s sure difficult to sympathise with the guy with his head on the block, because you know it’ll soon be over. In a similar way, the grimey situations that the four male characters find themselves in almost dare the audience to sympathise with them. You know as soon as a little glimmer of hope is offered to them, the rug will be pulled from under their feet.
For example, Ally is given £270 to escape his abusive father, his ecstacy habit, the prowling paedophiles to whom he has sold pornographic pictures of himself, and the gangs of council estate vigilantes trying to defeat the paedophiles. He plans to use the £270 to meet his mother in Majorca, where she now lives, but at the eleventh hour, she writes to him to tell him he can’t come over as she’s remarried, sending Ally on an ecstacy and vodka binge, which culminates in him trying to kill himself in a suicide pact with his best friend. Bummer.
Compounding this sense of crushing hopelessness is the mawkish text, which never lets an opportunity for a hearty East End anecdote go by unanswered.
Character: “Remember that old telly?”
Audience: Oh yes? A telly? Brilliant! Tell us more!
Character: “We used to poke it with a stick.”
Audience: You used to poke a telly with a stick?
Character: “A big stick. They kept it behind the bar.”
Audience: What? Why? Why would you poke a telly with a big stick?
How “urban”! How “gritty”! At one point, a character comes in with a tray of whelks. Whelks. Which “Bumper Book Of East End Cliches” has the author been reading, I wonder?
Character: “Those jumpers… it were a bit like yer mum… holdin’ you.”
Audience: Not really. It was like you were wearing a jumper.
The actors struggle against this text, but they don’t struggle that hard. Josef Altin at least brings pace and humour to the role of Ally, but both Toby Alexander and Doug Allen drag the play sluggishly along with little spark, enthusiasm or creativity. Paul Moriarty has the worst of the script’s anecdotage, and he looks faintly embarrassed to be involved. The direction, by Paul Miller, is also bad – moments of urgency are dismissed flippantly, jokes are underplayed, or just badly played, and the whole thing is theatrical and overly dramatic, where it should be played naturalistically and restrained. The play also relies on gimmicky stage business – Doug Allen fits a bath live on-stage, including using a blowtorch; naked photos are taken of a 14-year old boy – but the reality of these moments of action are undermined by, respectively, the fact that Doug Allen does not look like a natural plumber, and the fact that that Josef Altin is very obviously not fourteen.
Ultimately, for a play concerned with dealing with an urban, deprived situation, both script and production come across as bizarrely patronising. What reality is this based in? The playwright confuses “urban” with “depressing”, and so even when the two boys are saved from their suicide pact, one of them is still abducted and murdered. And then talks to the other. From heaven. With a lot of reverb on his voice. While the other tearfully stands over his grave. Monologuing. About how great he was, and how unfair life is. Really, by the end of it, I couldn’t care two tosses about anyone involved, and I don’t think that’s what theatre should be doing.