Angle Theatre present Repentance and Behind The Lines at Bush Theatre

Angle Theatre’s Be Discovered project is a writing competition that accepts scripts from anyone who works and/or lives in selected boroughs of London. It aims to showcase the unique perceptions tucked away in the city’s suburbs, shaped by the experiences of those who consistently engage with the area.

It’s an excellent opportunity to present new ideas and new ways of viewing familiar events to the sometimes static world of theatre. While I applaud its ethos and its effort, the results showcased this year do not live up to the competition’s potential.

The first play, Repentance by Mediah Ahmed is a poorly conceived, clichéd mess of thoughts that provide a bland perception of a sensational domestic drama which centres on a Muslim girl struggling with her beliefs about purity, virginity and sin while exploring her feelings for a boy who isn’t a Muslim. The characters lack depth and Ahmed’s perception of events is stifled by Dick Bird’s design, her own reliance on a melodramatic central character (“I have tasted the mother of all evil from your lips” – alcohol, how did you guess?) and quotes from the Qur’an used to speak for this nameless protagonist. It’s not a bad technique but it fails because her protagonist lacks conviction in the scripture she spouts and yet fails to question it with any intelligence.

The use of these quotes serves to make religion sound less like something confusing but perhaps comforting, and makes it seem like a tool used to guilt, brainwash and control. None of these depictions of religion would be a bad thing if they were explored, questioned or discussed but Ahmed uses them to explain instead, which feels overly simplistic and predictable. There’s even a confession scene featuring a kitchen-bound Asian mother whose lines are bravely (but perhaps unwisely) not scripted in English.

Blanche McIntyre directs this severely underdeveloped script and has the characters punch their way out of the stage through a paper veneer to peel away a layer which allows us a window into their world, though what we see is of course limited. The technique is effective at first but overused to the point of boredom and Ahmed’s predictable characters don’t help.

Behind The Lines

By contrast, Neil Daley’s Behind the Lines takes a familiar and potentially sensational, tragic incident and aligns his characters with his audience cleverly so that both slowly discover what has happened. Winning back her audience, McIntyre’s production sees the police section off the centre of the room where someone has been stabbed, forcing two teenagers to find an alternative route home. The design makes us focus on something we’d otherwise dismiss and forces us to consider the people around a tragedy rather than the dramatic event itself, though we are treated to the poetic – if hard to follow – monologues of the victim of the crime at the epicentre of the action.

But as with Repentance, Behind The Lines feels underdeveloped. The crux of the play, to which its accomplished, highly amusing supporting cast repeatedly return, is a slightly older but far wiser character, Lawrence, who provides a moral standpoint on a range of big topics that determine the direction of all their lives. Though a likeable and useful tool, Lawrence becomes too preachy and functional too quickly, and it’s hard to understand why he isn’t dismissed as a bit of a know-it-all by his peers. His contributions are delivered like sermons that hammer home the point that these kids need some guidance in order to avoid the fate of their friend.

Arnold Wesker’s take on what makes a good play sums up my thoughts on Angle Theatre’s selection of plays better than I can:

“Perceptions are everything. A playwright may select an important theme, handle it with a skilful quality of technique and paint it with an attractive personal quality of humour, but if the writer’s capacity to perceive a deep truth about their theme is weak, then the work is weak. A theory about what art must do and the way people must conduct their lives rather than perceptions about the way people do conduct their lives is more to do with wish-fulfilment than with a truth.”

Sir Arnold Wesker writing in The Guardian, 2003

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