Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London (****)
Paul Miller is certainly taking his new Orange Tree audience on some scary rides. After Alistair McDowall’s surreal Pomona, first seen here at the Orange Tree before its National Theatre transfer, we now have the world premiere of Brad Birch’s unnerving The Brink.
Miller not only seems to have an uncanny nose for the new zeitgeists. The Brink comes to us courtesy of a collaboration that includes independent producers alongside the National Theatre and the J P Morgan Emerging Directors award – a clever pooling of resources that will undoubtedly reap rewards.
Birch is already in the frame as a name to watch as this year’s winner of the Harold Pinter Commission at the Royal Court. And The Brink offers up a scenario that Pinter himself would certainly have approved: the individual against the system, power games, and language in this morality tale of sorts, used as a weapon.
What makes Birch very much of the here and now, though, is his narrative framework. Nick is a teacher and his suspicion of a dangerous secret being kept under wraps by his supercilious Head, Mr Boyd, merges with the present political hot potato of schools being turned into academies.
Add to that unnamed government forces at work and Nick’s own mental state of tormented dreams and you have an atmosphere of febrile paranoia. Birch too leavens this latter-day nightmare with a quirky kind of humour that certainly appealed to the Orange Tree’s sparky 20-something audience.
Mel Hillyard, the winner of the above Directors’ award gives this play-for-today thriller a studiously abstract setting on a bed of grey rubbery rubble whose olfactory oddness adds to the sense of being caught in some kind of industrial outhouse.
Performed as a four-hander, at its centre is Ciarán Owens as Nick, the young Ibsen-like follower of truth at all costs (shades of Enemy of the People), desperately vulnerable and emotionally unequal to Vince Leigh’s horribly smarmy Head as well as Martin, his girl-friend’s boss. `You’re a good man, Nick’, he informs him at the end, but `as you know better than anyone, being good doesn’t mean that you win’.
A lesson for our times.
The Brink plays at the Orange Tree Theatre to April 30, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2016