Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

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Terror

Lyric Hammersmith, 19th June 2017

Terror is not your typical piece of theatre. It is a courtroom drama yes, but not in the form of a classic “did he/she or didn’t he/she do it”. Nor is it especially interested in probing the psychological make-up of accused, victim or legal representatives. Instead it is focussed on a classic moral dilemma: which takes precedence, the rule of law and the principles that lie behind it, or the conscience of the individual.

Writer Ferdinand von Schirach sets the stakes pretty high though. The defendant Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) is an exemplary major and fighter pilot in the German air force. He has admitted shooting down a commercial plane which had been hijacked by a terrorist. In doing so 164 people have died but potentially he has saved the lives of 70,000 in a football stadium, the known target of the terrorist. The facts are succinctly laid out by Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody), the air force officer tasked with co-ordinating any response to this sort of event. Major Koch was expressly ordered not to shoot down the plane but chose to go ahead. The judge (Tanya Moodie), prosecuting (Emma Fielding) and defence (Forbes Masson) counsels lay out the arguments with some eloquence and pull in a few classic examples from ethics and moral philosophy (the trolley problem for example). We also here the testimony of one of the victim’s wives played by Shanaya Rafaat.

We the audience then toddle off to the short interval, have a debate about what we think (as a number of people around me were doing – Billy No Mates here once again had to have a debate inside his head) and then return to press a button to decide if the major is guilty or not guilty.

It is thought provoking stuff but only works as a piece of theatre because of the canniness of the writing. Mr von Schirach’s day job is as a lawyer. I am guessing he is a flipping good lawyer. I have no idea how “accurate” a representation of the German legal system this “trial” is, but I am not sure it matters, so deftly is the dilemma set up. The set design by the very talented Anna Fleische is imposing and the direction by the Lyric’s own Sean Holmes is typically confident. The excellent cast also rises to the occasion. For me though the real hero here is translator David Tushingham. The role of translator is often overlooked but if I admired the economy of the text here this evidently reflects the skill of translator as well as playwright. I note that Mr Tushingham also translated Winter Solstice by Richard Schimmelpfenning which enthralled me at the Orange Tree earlier in the year. He was also dramaturg for the Forbidden Zone, one of Schaubuhne Berlin’s finest exports to these shores.

So if you and some mates are looking for a thought provoking night out, (with plenty of time for some grub and/or a livener or two afterwards as this comes in well under 2 hours even with the break), then you could do worse than secure some tickets for Terror. And after it is all over, check out the Lyric website to see how your audience jury compared to the many previously across the world. I won’t say what I thought.

 

Twitstorm at the Park Theatre review ***

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Twitstorm

Park Theatre, 15th June 2017

Right then. Where to start with Twitstorm, a new play by Chris England, which has a couple more weeks to run at the Park Theatre.

Well once again the Park has taken an intriguing and a la mode idea and stuffed it full of faces off the telly to pull in the punters. However once again it has not quite lived up to the billing, although this in large part I think reflects the mixed messaging on the part of the writer.

In essence it is a satire on the modern predilection for mock outrage on social media. Jason Merrells plays Guy Manton a supercilious day-time TV presenter of a show called “Arguing the Toss” who prides himself on being the scourge of “political correctness”. It is not too difficult to see writer Chris England’s own alter ego in this character though he himself has chosen to play Rupert, Guy’s manager. Guy’s writing partner, Neil, played by the instantly recognisable Justin Edwards whose facial tics are comedy gold, resentfully takes something of a professional back seat and still hankers after Guy’s wife Bex, played by Clare Goose. With minimal preamble Tom Moutchi is pitched in to proceedings as Ike, the now grown up “child from Africa” that Bex and Guy had disinterestedly “sponsored” and who is invited to stay.

Obviously this plot device bears little scrutiny but it’s what you do with it that matters so we can let it pass for the moment. From this beginning (and incorporating the excellent Ben Kavanagh doubling as work colleague Steve and new media commentariat Daniel Priest) Mr England fashions his satire as (no detail to avoid spoiling) Guy’s twitter feed posts a highly offensive tweet which provokes a media frenzy, and then parlays into a further bizarre plot twist involving Ike.

Now clearly there is scope for a very interesting satire to evolve from this premise. Unfortunately Twitstorm is not quite that satire. It definitely succeeds in pricking the bubble of the self serving, sententious nature of the modern entertainment and digital media eco-system. Guy is a grotesque and deluded egotist and Jason Merrells captures his type perfectly. If Mr England had just stuck to the story of his downfall we would, I believe, have had a funnier and more successful play. But his compulsion to turn his acerbic pen against all manner of “things we are no longer allowed to say” creates some frankly very odd and uncomfortable moments.

Just to be clear I get that satire has no boundaries and we should not be afraid of saying the unsayable. But some of the lines here and bits of the plot look like they have dropped straight out of some 1970s “blimey Dad did people really say/think that in those days” sitcom. And therein lies the problem. Even if these crass lapses in tone are intended to be ironic they just weren’t funny and make Mr England sound like some apoplectic Mail reading sub Clarkson. It feels like the Ike character has been shoehorned in to an underwritten plot simply so Mr England can up the outrage quotient. Having done this the play then gets trapped by its own deus ex machina. This is not a farce (though the middle class show home set gives that impression), so taking liberties by piling up the improbable detracts from the justified ridicule.

So these are the drawbacks. Unfortunately for this liberal, PC, metropolitan elite Guardian reader it was also pretty funny at times. And as I said its scattergun approach to bringing down modern cultural shibboleths does sometimes hit the target, even if the intent is unclear. It is also interesting to think about that dividing line between what is funny¬†for the “right” reasons and what is funny for the “wrong” reasons. I worship at the altar of comedian Stewart Lee but find Mrs Brown’s Boys puerile and unfunny. But given my class, education and world view that is not surprising.

So I would ignore the reviews that dismiss this out of hand, and ignore most of what I have said above and go see for yourself. At the very least it will clarify your thoughts on what you and others find funny and where you sit on the “political correctness gone mad” and “synthetic outrage” debates. Which, in Mr England’s defence, I suppose, was what he was trying to do in the first place.