AS soon as you step into the theatre, you get the eerie feeling that it is going to be an uncomfortable night. Locked Up does not disappoint.
Sitting in a pit – below eye level – on stage is Declan (Samuel Ranger). He is bare footed, with no more than a couple of thin blankets for comfort – plus his thoughts. The set is claustrophobic and a sense of foreboding lies in the air like a thick London fog. Day light is non-existent. Darkness dominates. Time drifts – and drifts.
To begin with, Declan is alone. He paces round his confined square like a caged zoo animal. He shouts at an unseen being, claiming his innocence. Whether he is heard is doubtful. He sings, repetitively. Like a stuck record. Every scene is short and sharp, interrupted by darkness, a screeching sound that eats into the brain and then bright searchlights. As a viewer you feel as if you are imprisoned yourself. There is a temptation to run for the exit and escape.
In one of the blackouts, Declan is suddenly joined in his confinement by Topher (Conor Cook). Declan is unwelcoming, refusing to share his blankets and imploring the intruder to stay out of his preferred corner. In contrast, Topher is talkative and pleased to have company. Ten times more gregarious than circumspect Declan.
As they joust, we begin to learn – or we think we do – a little more about why these two individuals are incarcerated in this hell hole. Declan because he was found making a bomb, Topher as a result of a serious breach of corporate security. But the air is laced with a plague of lies. Truth is in short supply. A bond is formed and then broken, blood is spilt and at the finale confidences are broken. For one of our imprisoned, it is mission accomplished. A clever, unexpected ending that makes up for the uncomfortableness of the darkness and intermittent piercing noise that is worse than a pneumatic drill.
Ranger and Cook excel as the two protagonists. I certainly would not recommend playing Ranger at Poker because I imagine he plays a shrewd game and makes mincemeat of most competitors. Read his mind? No chance.
Given the lack of offending utensils available in their matchbox size cell, it is a mystery how the blood is spilt. But maybe it is not blood after all given the litany of other lies thrown the viewer’s way. And you wonder how the cell mates maintain their hygiene given there is not even a stinking bucket in view. Maybe it all happens in the ‘white room’ they occasionally frequent to be interrogated and have the odd therapeutic pedicure (a little strange that). How their hair is cut remains a mystery to them both. In the middle of darkness when they are fast asleep? Stranger things happen in the dark, I suppose.
Locked Up represents a super bit of writing from Heather Simpkin. Director James McAndrew and set designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust deserve medals for turning the Tristan Bates theatre into a claustrophobic darkened hovel. With their respective lighting and sound, Euan J Davies and Jac Cooper create an un-nerving atmosphere. For an hour and ten minutes, Tristan Bates is transformed into a living hell. London’s Shaftesbury Avenue seems like heaven afterwards although the temptation is to find the nearest drinking den and imbibe profusely.
This is a play, from the stable of embryonic theatre company Bear In The Air Productions, that has enough nous, attitude and prescience about it (Big Brother like Government, corrupt Government) to command a transfer elsewhere. With a little brushing up around the edges, it would not look out of place in the confines of the downstairs theatre at Trafalgar Studios.
Locked Up runs until July 27.
Photo credits: Rosalind White Photography