Theatre Local, Peckham
Vera, Vera, Vera is the debut play from young actress Hayley Squires, and is one of only two plays to be specially selected by the Royal Court to be part of the third season of its Theatre Local project, a scheme which aims to bring new and challenging theatre to outlying parts of London that are not normally known for their cultural excellence. Vera is being staged in the Bussey Building, a former munitions and cricket bat factory opposite Peckham train station.
I will endeavour not to critique this production with a view coloured by how outstanding I think the Theatre Local project is, although of course the context of a performance should never be ignored. I will limit my eulogizing to merely emphasizing how wonderful it is to go and see a professional production on a ‘Pay What You Can’ basis in an area where a friendly barman recommended “either the KFC or the McDonald’s” as local restaurants a couple might like to go to for a romantic pre-theatre meal.
This production is executed with trademark Royal Court style and attention to design detail. The space itself is the third floor of a dilapidated old pre-war building that has been transformed into a neglected inner-city park. You enter the grotty landscape of the play in a very real and immediate way - the entire ‘auditorium’ is wall-to-wall grass, littered with fag ends, broken bottles, and crumpled condolence cards. This sets the tone for what is a fairly bleak and unrelenting study of modern urban society, a character-driven black comedy with far more visceral shock tactics than belly laughs.
The story follows two sets of seemingly disparate characters as they deal with the fallout from their respective days – a schoolboy fight and the funeral of a young war hero. The dramatic structure is simple – one scene following one set of protagonists, followed by a scene focusing on the others...and repeat until finished. The transitions between these scenes are managed beautifully – our small cast of five move the set and props in character, carelessly discarding unwanted items out into the managed wasteland of the space beyond, and then waiting broodingly (there is an awful lot of brooding and surly menace in this piece) and visibly offstage for their next moment in the spotlight, on permanent display even when they are not in focus.
This is going to be one of those ‘four-star reviews that reads like a three-star’ that everyone in the theatre despises, and it is deliberate. The confounded extra star has been awarded for the sterling efforts of the cast and production team in elevating this interesting and raw debut play beyond its juvenile self. The piece is interesting, intense, powerful, and a real achievement for a young woman with an acting background – but it is flawed. Some hackneyed and laboured bits of dialogue that could have been excruciating in the hands of a less capable cast were parlayed into strong dramatic moments by these accomplished young actors; Daniel Kendrick as Lee and Ted Riley as Sammy were particularly strong. It also struck me as the unfinished version of a longer and more complex piece – I felt like there was another set of characters missing that had been sacrificed for the sake of keeping the play to the requisite hour, another set of voices that had been stifled. For me, the piece owed a debt to the wonderful television series This Is England, with a similar flair for repugnant characters and disaffected youth in desperate circumstances. This comparison is high praise indeed, and is intended as such, but Squires still has some way to go to find a voice that is truly her own. However, with the Royal Court in her corner and the best possible start to her career as a playwright, I think she is a name to watch. I recommend taking advantage of this fantastic arts initiative to see Vera, Vera, Vera, and give yourself a fighting chance of being able to say: “Oh, I was seeing Miss Squires’ plays before anyone knew who she was”.
‘Vera, Vera, Vera’ runs at Theatre Local, Peckham, until 28th July.