Simon Stephens’ Pornography is a dark, gritty play, spotlighting the lives of 8 people in London at a time of momentous excitement – and horror. It focuses on individuals living through the awarding of the 2012 Olympics, swiftly followed by the 7/7 bombings in the capital, showcasing the crash from euphoria to chaos.
Red Brick Theatre, the collaborative, Manchester-based theatre company, took on the task of performing the first professional production of Stephens’ play since 2009, a year after it was published. The piece is written as a collection of seven scenes, published in numerical order to serve as a countdown to the bombings, but Red Brick opted to separate and intertwine these scenes instead – meaning that the performance had a highly fluid nature to it.
Upon entering 53two’s historic arches, you are greeted by two screens showing a collection of distorted, rapidly changing video clips, along with an array of multimedia equipment. The actors enter to a cacophony of loud music and flashing lights, leading to quite an unsettling atmosphere. This doesn’t last, however, as Five (Matthew Heywood) screams the prologue and warns the audience to “stand well clear of the yellow line”, and we are in.
The individual nature of the scenes means there is no discernible plot to follow, rather a snapshot of the realities of each character. This means that each scene takes more of a focus on the actors themselves to tell their story and the ensemble cast from Red Brick Theatre does so exceptionally well. Each character develops and changes throughout their scenes (some monologues, some duologues), whilst the remaining actors watch on from the sidelines in a Brechtian style. At times, they operate the aforementioned multimedia equipment, allowing close-ups of the actors and live voiceovers to bring new characters into scenes without drawing the focus and, as the play develops, they edge their way further and further onto stage as if their characters are listening in to themes which may interest them. This also serves to give some of the characters a focal point in their monologues, bringing a renewed sense of purpose.
During a play in which taboo subjects take centre-stage (including but not limited to incest, voyeurism and abuse), lighter moments are highlighted and indeed necessary. This is especially noticeable from Four (George Miller), in scenes with Three (Frankie Lipman): as Lipman’s character allows her inner thoughts to escape, Miller breaks the tension beautifully with brilliant timing. Similarly, scenes between Six and Seven (Imogen Khan and John Joyce-O’Keeffe respectively) start light and comedic to juxtapose other themes, before their characters take a dark turn.
As mentioned though, this is a dark, gritty play on the whole: Heywood and Isaac Radmore as Two lead this particularly well. Heywood has a key role in the performance, and his character journeyed from normality to being positively unhinged. This was done gradually and with such care as to not make it obvious to the audience, before jumping back into a seemingly normal human in an instant; no two moments were the same. Radmore’s journey was more linear, as we see the evolution of a schoolboy with worrying thoughts into a genuinely threatening persona. All members of the cast deserve credit for bringing a difficult piece to life, as their tormented characters reflect their fractured existences nicely.
The taboo themes covered in Pornography are not easy to portray – that is rather the point. However, the cast manage to find the balance between the more banal, everyday occurrences and the extreme, flitting between them with ease.
Pornography runs at 53two until 30th September.
Reviewer: Michael Baines
Reviewed: 26th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: