Moonfleece is an interesting and gripping drama written by the prolific writer Philip Ridley, born in 1964 in Bethnal Green in East London but now gracing the leafy suburbs of Ilford. It jumbles together a host of themes, some perennial, some contemporary. Written in 2010 it previews the current outbreak of far right political activity, and places the motivation for this rather accurately in individual’s (and family’s) disaffection with normal values subsequent to hardship and trauma within traditionally stable family units.
Some of the context-setting may seem excessively laboured, but there is a justification for most of the details of an initially rather confusing setup.
The scene is set in a squatted derelict flat by Link (as in she was missing a lot). Link (Rebekah Smith) draws together apparently disparate strands throughout the play and refers often to her co-squatter and street performer Zak (Jacob Bell) who later makes a dramatic intervention. A series of individuals come and go but the key figure is a sharp suited but troubled young man called Curtis (Tom Rowntree), who appears to have a leading role in a new far right group called Avalon. In the way of these people he is supported by a brace of thugs whose commitment is not fully supported by their limited intellectual capacity. Curtis comes from a troubled family where his new stepfather is the eponymous leader of the Avalon sect. We also meet his two henchmen (Jack Oldcorn and Gregor Laurence), his former girlfriend Sarah (Alice Beattie) and her friend Alex (Charley Hawthorne).
It takes some time to establish that his intrusion into the squat is to address some issues that go back to his childhood, which happens to have been in this flat long before dereliction and squatting occurred. The scene is set, but it needs a table, some chairs, and a medium in a wheelchair (Jess Lester) to draw it all together. Watching this drama unfold is journalist Jez, a friend of Sarah played with great camp relish by Harry Hawes.
The producing MinotaurTheatre Company is the brand of the accomplished UEA Drama school which continues to impress me with the quality and diversity of its output and of those who contribute towards it. I also inevitably have a soft spot for an outfit wise enough to call their annual awards ceremony ‘The Julians’.
Ridley fills his dramatic tale with a distinctive and well drawn cast of young characters. They are mostly young people coping in varying ways with the difficult transition from child to adult, but with the urgency and passion that some of us lose when we pass 30. They are brought together in a deeply improbable scenario which nonetheless sets a structure for the complex relationships laid bare as the day progresses. Lives are changed forever by the events we witness, and we are challenged to re-examine our own prejudices and assumptions about people who may have had a different start in life from our own.
Director Ash Strain marshals her capable cast well – the pace is slow enough to allow tensions to build, but has several moments of unexpectedly fast action. The only aspect of the direction that did not work for me was the audio treatment of the beginning and end of each of the two acts. A musical theme would make things clear, but choosing an audio soundscape of well known voices and quotes is confusing, leaving an audience unsure whether to clap, leave or wait for more. The set is appropriate to the purported setting of a derelict squatted flat – bleak, scruffy and largely empty. Some sections of the play feature stylised masked mimes of related events which is combined with the device of using a storytelling character (Zak) to relate a key part of the narrative. All these devices are effective and add depth to the production.
Above all this play works well because the cast are very good. Each of the eleven on stage create defined and credible characters that draw you in, in a play which avoids tedious gender stereotypes still too common in contemporary stage drama. It gives a lively story with some unexpected twists and turns and some insights into human motivation and responses to trauma. An intriguing diversion for a cold October evening.
© Julian Swainson 2019
Listing: Moonfleece produced by the Minotaur Theatre Company plays at the UEA Drama Studio at 7.30pm from 10-12 October 2019. £7/£5 concessions.
Tickets from: https://store.uea.ac.uk/product-catalogue/uea-drama-studio/drama-studio-theatre/moonfleece-by-philip-ridley-presented-by-minotaur-theatre-company