Riveting River Pranks at the Bush Theatre

Mudlarks is a powerful first play from a new writer, says reviewer Penny Flood

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Mudlarks is powerful stuff and not for the faint-hearted. Three teenage boys growing up in a dead-end part of the Thames Estuary are high after a night of mindless violence. As the adrenaline wears off and reality dawns, they begin to realise the awfulness of their situation. They’re trapped between a rising tide in the small patch of river ‘beach’ where they are hiding and the police who are looking for them.

When they were children they used to play on what they then saw as a nice little beach. Now it’s just a stinking bend in the river littered with the detritus of life lived in a town where hopelessness has become the norm. Although they’re a short boat ride from London’s bright lights and opportunities, they might just as well be on a different planet.

Photos; Nobby Clark

The bullying ring-leader of these now teenage school friends is Charlie (James Marchant), all testosterone-fuelled frustration and rage. The other two are immature and dim Wayne (Mike Noble) who sees Charlie as his hero. And thoughtful, intelligent Jake (Scott Hazell) who hopes to go to college and is beginning to draw away from the other two.

The dramatic consequences of these Mudlarks’ latest pranks are revealed gradually in an expertly scripted first act which mixes humour with the grim realities they discuss as they are stuck on the beach. We learn from this chat about their dreams and struggles, but the futility of dreaming in this harsh environment is emphasised by cul-de-sac they have got themselves into.

Playwright Vickie Donoghue grew up in Essex and knows this culture, the despair it generates and the inability of young people try to break out of it. The script crackles along and never slips into cliché. She doesn’t patronise her subjects either, presenting them as human beings somewhat flawed but deserving of sympathy none the less.

Place and atmosphere are perfectly evoked by Amy Jane Cook’s smashing set where you can almost smell the river in the foetid mist that rises relentlessly. Will Wrighton’s tight direction keeps it focused and holds the tension until the end. And the performances of the three young men are breathtaking.

This remarkable play is Donoghue’s first full length work, so the Bush is fulfilling its remit to showcase good new writing.

It’s not perfect, the structure is a bit wonky and the second act drifts. A key setpiece where a wrecked boat becomes a fantasy trip up the river, bringing to life just how distant the prized lights of London are from the boys’ reality, would have made more sense coming earlier in the play. The time line gets blurred towards the end when it becomes difficult to know if it is day or night, and some of the plot is a bit unreal in Donoghue’s attempt to resolve the trapped nightmare the boys find themselves in.

These flaws don’t detract from the relevance of this as an interesting and engaging play that is also very watchable. Donoghue’s future work will be well worth looking out for.

Mudlarks is at the Bush Theatre until October 20.

Book online here or call the booking offfice on 020 8743 5050.




July 3, 2012