Simon Ward reviews Snowflakes at The Old Red Lion Theatre
The fashion over the last few years has been for plays to run for 90 minutes or so with no interval. There is a certain intensity gained by knowing that the full plot will unfurl without a break. As a result, and pandemic-notwithstanding, it is quite a long time since I have been to see a play like this one which does have an interval. But the interval here is really well-judged – there is a prolonged build up and then the payoff comes after the break. It actually adds to the pervasive feeling of suspense and barely supressed violence laced with dark humour which runs throughout. And it also makes the audience complicit in what is unfolding. As in a horror film, you can never let your guard down because there is always another fresh twist that will mess with your head. The play is bursting with ideas, perhaps too many to cram them all in.
We open with a man face down in a hotel room bed, with some suggestion that this may not have been the plan at the start of his evening, and indeed that there may have been some illicit sex, although there is no sign of a partner. When he does wake up and begin to get his bearings, he makes a sheepish and apologetic call home and arranges to be there later, an arrangement we soon realise he will probably not be able to keep. Still in a disoriented state he lets in a room service waiter – too late he discovers what he has let himself in for.
We are in a kind of near-future dystopia, where revenge can be ordered up and controlled by eager viewers across the internet. He, Tony, a famous writer, (Henry Davis) is to be the latest victim of this service, organised by a shadowy female controller, and implemented by a team of contract killers. It is theoretically possible that the people may decide the victim should be spared, but vanishingly unlikely. His crimes are never spelled out, but it is understood that they are notorious, have been widely reported and he has not offered any defence.
The two assassins, Marcus (Robert Boulton, also the playwright) and Sarah (Niamh Finlay), drug Tony and throw him back on the bed to discuss how they are going to carry out their task. But first, Marcus, veteran of hundreds of jobs, wants to know what Sarah, a novice, is doing here – surely he could do this on his own? Their banter back and forth, ranging over inter-office politics, sexism and the philosophical underpinning of what they do is often edgily funny, as is the fact that you cannot escape office politics and HR even when you are a contract killer. The power dynamics between Marcus and Sarah are constantly switching. Indeed, power moves between all the characters throughout so, as with Pinter, it is never quite clear who is really in charge.
Although what we are witnessing is clearly not quite our world, it is too close for comfort. The idea of vigilante rough justice being meted out in the face of the ponderous and inefficient legal system has a kind of crude appeal, and one can well imagine a willing audience of online voyeurs looking for self-righteous thrills. As the play builds to its climax, we, as the audience for the play, are forced to confront again our own complicity in the darkly compelling drama.
Performances are uniformly excellent, and Michael Cottrell’s direction and Alys Whitehead’s design skilfully draw us in to the play’s murky, slightly off-kilter world.
Snowflakes is playing at The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ until Saturday 16th October