The Chair, presented by the Bridewell Production Company, is a new play written by Vinny Ferguson and Tony Kelly, based on the aftermath of the Cameo Murders which happened in Liverpool in 1949. Focusing on the experience of Tommy (Ted Grant), a petty criminal and prison barber, the play depicts DCI Balmer (Mike Lockley), a crooked and manipulative senior police officer, using his power to pressure Tommy into breaking the confidentiality that exists in the seat of the prison barber’s chair in order to ensure his preferred suspects, George Kelly and Charlie Connolly (Tony Jefferies) are found guilty of the murders.
The play opens with Tommy arguing with his partner, Maggie (Andrea Neary) after being out all night “working”. Exhausted and cagey, it quickly becomes clear that Tommy is hiding things from her, but she is soon pacified by the money that Tommy brings home for her and their young children.
The pause between the opening scene and the rest of the play was slightly too long, possibly stemming from technical issues or other errors, but once the play begins properly the story proceeds well and the pacing is good keeping a decent sense of drama throughout the piece. The cast also deserve particular credit for continuing without interruption in spite of an unfortunately disruptive audience, with several people moving around and talking, and several instances of phones disrupting the performance.
Grant’s performance as Tommy is good, with a frightening underlayer running beneath the charming persona he likes people to see. His violent outbursts are believable, and he is convincing as a small-time player on the edges of a complex criminal underworld. He creates a good sense of regret over the way he lives his life and the position he has found himself in.
Lockley and Paul Taylor, playing DS Broadbent, portray a vicious side of law enforcement well, and show how power can be used for manipulation and personal gain. Balmer’s threats towards Tommy were particularly underhanded, which was enhanced by Tommy’s revulsion over being seen as a snitch. Lockley was particularly creepy and slimy when interacting with Neary, which enhanced the attitudes of the period highlighting the position of women at the time.
The chemistry between Grant and Neary was good, and their relationship felt very genuine with their arguments about money worries and the children feeling realistic, while a background of love existed against their difficult world of poverty and petty crime. The dilemma as Balmer puts pressure onto the two is believable and the precariousness of their situation as both fight for what they want and need is dramatic and emotional.
Jefferies’ relationship with Grant is also good, and he brings a nice light comic touch to the role which creates a feeling of innocence in the character as Balmer constantly tries to get him to confess to the murders. The play is engrossing and told in short snappy scenes which create a disorientating feeling as the slightly non-linear narrative progresses through the unfortunate events being shown.
Further consideration needs to be given to the positioning of the actors and sight lines. Much of the action was performed on the floor next to the stage rather than onstage, which seemed to be pointing towards the world of the prison being lower and viewed as less important than the world of the police station, however, this also meant that a lot of the drama was almost impossible to see. The director had also made the unusual decision to have offstage actors sitting in the front row of the audience rather than going to the back of the theatre which is usual in the venue. This created a number of distractions as the cast entered and exited from the front row, which was of course exacerbated by the audience members who were fidgeting during the performance.
The Chair is a good dramatic piece, which brings awareness to a dreadful event in Liverpool’s history. Well performed throughout, the play highlights corruption within the police force and decency and moral behaviour within criminal society. The play feels claustrophobic, and a feeling of dread pulsates throughout which culminates in a tragic and emotional conclusion.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 21st October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★