Sunday, 20 March 2016

'Correspondence' Old Red Lion Theatre ****

Technology embedded in computer games has markedly advanced over the last couple of decades where now someone from one country can physically engage with another player from a different nation, on the contrary, could these developments prove to not be such a good thing after all where mental health is at play? The Old Red Lion Theatre’s production of Lucinda Burnett’s play, ‘Correspondence’ combines fledgling friendships, mental health and a rescue mission in a really interesting way, moreover, the performances were exemplary in its entirely.

‘Correspondence’ is set in both Stockport and Syria, 2011 where we’re acquainted with teenagers, Ben and Jibreel who are only communicating through headsets playing on the Xbox and it appears to be quite a normal gameplay, but Ben’s inquisitive journalistic nature initiates as he asks Jibreel  about the Syrian upheaval, which is clearly in a destitute state. Ben’s divorced parents; Fran (Joanna Croll) and David (Mark Extance) are repeatedly bickering over their son and how he is being brought up; especially at weekends where Ben has to stay with his father every other weekend. These conflicts are impacting on Ben’s confidence and at school he is a victim of bullying and one such tormenter, Harriet decides to interfere with Ben’s strategies and his life in general. Whereas, like most of the United Kingdom who are mostly interested in the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Ben is conjuring a plan to venture to Syria and rescue Jibreel as he has fallen off the radar as Ben cannot seem to manage to contact him whatsoever. Over the course of the performance, Ben and Harriet prepare to jet off to Syria and lie to the school and their parents of their whereabouts and when they arrive in Syria, Ben and Harriet are flabbergasted by the severity of the situation. As soon as Ben meets Jibreel face-to-face for the first time, Jibreel is shocked by Ben’s appearance and he makes it very clear that blocked Ben from his contacts as he was talking to him way too much. Due to this, Ben’s mental state is pushed to its limit and frighteningly he attacks Harriet as she keeps forcing him to forget his proposal and stating that they should go home which Jibreel agrees. As such; with comprehensive persuasion and when the authorities know of their presence there, Ben and Harriet are flown home to Stockport. Throughout the performance, when Ben is back home in a vastly poor mental state, he has spent a period of time in a mental health institution which means he hasn’t been able to go to school because of it. Harriet comes to visit Ben when he is at home on the day of William and Kate’s matrimonial. In order for Ben to become better again, Harriet thinks it might be effective if Ben and her plays on the Xbox, understandably, Ben is a little apprehensive about this, but, he does his level best to play the game with Harriet. In addition, Ben’s parents, Fran and David endeavour to stop arguing for the sake that their son’s joviality increases in the healing process. At the finale, Jibreel communicates with Ben via the Xbox as he is studying at a London university where he has been experiencing troubles in being able to get his parents on the phone and he pleads with Ben to help him and Ben doesn’t think that this is a good idea, then again, he does his damnedest to help his online friend. Burnett’s narrative is marvellous as the combination of the themes into one plot is not only risk taking but how the use of technology could aid in solving some of the world’s leading problems; moreover, the relationship with Ben and Jibreel is well established through comedy and emotion. 

One found the performances by the company of, ‘Correspondence’ were swimmingly sublime as all of the elements within the roles have encapsulated the turmoil that Ben and Jibreel are facing in polar opposite scenarios and the threat of computer games technology. Joe Attewell is grand as the troubled teen, Ben; specially how his investigative nature proves to become an unhealthy obsession that leads not only him in danger, but Harriet too, alongside this, the moments with Jibreel really cemented how the WiFi evolution means that communications skills are not helping people at all. Ali Ariaie is charming as Syrian teen, Jibreel; in particular how amusing he comes across when we learn how much he really likes the music by American singer, Katy Perry, yet, his patience is under pressure by the arrival of Ben and it shows that the friendship that Ben thinks he has with Jibreel is not real. Jill McAusland is excellent as school bully turned friend, Harriet; such as how we see her character develop from someone we despise because she bullies Ben to someone we can identify with as she softens into quite a respectful friend to Ben where she doesn’t turn her back on Ben when he attacks her. 

Blythe Stewart’s direction is awe-inspiring here as she has brought to fruition the playwright’s work with such an impressive approach where we can see how two teenagers from completely opposing backgrounds have been brought together through the power of the Xbox gaming phenomenon where WiFi can aid in this, besides this, there’s an futuristic tale to this too through to the scene changes. Bethany Well’s design is whimsical as the set consists of like a portal that acts as Ben’s bedroom and you can see the technological atmosphere due to this structure that is in positioned in centre stage, additionally Christopher Nairne’s lighting design is striking as he has crafted it to feel like the games technology and wires are transporting Ben and Jibreel together into a bizarre form of alliances. Overall, the experience of, ‘Correspondence’ was such an intriguing tale of how two nations are being interconnected through the Xbox games console and the complications that being fixated on it can have on your brain and its functionality.  

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