By Hattie Brewis
The pub theatre is a glorious thing.
All the comfort and chaos of a local watering hole, married with the boldness and bravery of the small stage. And none of those eye-watering prices for a pre-show glass of wine. Instead you queue with the rest of the punters, slosh your drink up some creaky stairs, and settle down for an evening of art – the occasional burst of shouts or laughter rattling from below.
The Hope Theatre, a 50-seater nestled above Islington’s Hope and Anchor pub, is the ideal spot for Tom Powell’s first production of his drama Little Echoes. This emerging writer, who already has a number of awards under his belt, teamed up with director Stephen Bailey and Pentire Street Productions to create an intimate, ambitious and, at times, disturbing meditation on what drives people people outside the realms of their control.
Shajenthran (Mikhael DeVille) begins the play as a dynamic and diligent shopkeeper, exuding earnest sensibility as he describes the moments leading up to the tragedy that shatters his life: an acid attack which scars and blinds his beloved younger brother. The assailant is an unidentified boy on an unidentifiable moped, yet Shaj grows obsessed with hunting him down.
Danielle (Maisie Preston) is a wide-eyed, cropped-top sporting teen, nurturing a perfectly normal infatuation with the latest pop star heart-throb. That is, until she finds herself backstage in his dressing room and their relationship spirals into something frightening, sickening, and dangerous.
June (Ciara Pouncett) is a ballsy and shrewd private assistant, who carries out rich clients’ biddings via instructions from her smarmy boss. She is willing to work all hours of the day and even break the law to fulfil her duties, but soon finds herself treading a fine line between illegality and immorality.
All three actors are exceptional. Effortlessly navigating the small space – and dodging the audience’s feet – they each deliver moments of raw and piercing emotion with unflinching poise. DeVille’s performs Shaj’s descent into the darkness of manic compulsion with gut-wrenching credibility, Pouncett’s June strikes just the right balance between emotionally-detached ruthlessness and wounded insecurity, and Preston’s performance marks her out as one to watch.
Her evolution from the hand-wringing naivety of a hormonal adolescent to the dead-eyed nihilism of a victim beyond desperation is both seamless and heart-breaking.
While the trio of narratives are each performed as separate monologues, the actors play a variety of supporting roles throughout the production with the help of microphones dotted around the set. These disembodied voices help to push the action along, while the one-dimensional nature of these auxiliary characters amplifies the complexity of our protagonists.
In isolation, the three plots have important messages to convey on sexual exploitation, grooming, power-plays and desperation, yet Powell’s attempt to tie them all together at the end feels a little too forced. The two women’s stories work well in parallel, but Shaj’s isolated thread has been awkwardly pulled into the mix. His presence in the last two scenes is incongruous and, ultimately, superfluous to the final denouement. Powell would’ve been better off writing a separate play around this character, to give the topics of acid attacks and racially-motivated aggression the spotlight they deserve.
Powell’s work is brave and thoughtful, and the topics he is broaching matter. It is when we are reminded that this production was staged in partnership with Beyond the Streets – a charity helping women out of sexual exploitation – that we remember stories like Danielle’s exist in real life.
Little Echoes is a moving play, largely because of this. Powell, Bailey and the excellent cast share with us a snapshot of real-life traumas and the complex means by which individuals deal with them. It is confused, funny and a little rough round the edges. In other words, it’s the perfect play for a pub.
19 February – 9 March 2019
Tuesday – Saturday: 7.45pm (Standard £14, Concession £12)
Running Time: 90mins (no interval)
Venue: The Hope Theatre, 207 Upper Street, London N1 1RL
Picture by Will Alder; costume and set by Jessica Staton