Last week I had the pleasure of attending the second night of the new play Connect Four at Bristol’s Bierkeller theatre.
I went in with no real knowledge of what it was I was about to see, nothing but a vague synopsis and some knowledge of the writer’s previous work – I. was. blown. away.
Following the lives of two predominantly Northern Irish couples, and told from the perspective of ghosts, Connect Four successfully walks a tricky line between realism and the philosophical – questioning what it means to be alive. On the one hand, a young couple, the middle class, English intellectual Rose (Rebecca Jolliffe) and her husband Ciaran (Mike Skeates) are coping with the flooding in their flat and moving in with Ciaran’s working class parents Aidan (Danann McAleer) and Andrea (Georgie Fenwick). On the other, Aidan and Andrea themselves are coping with life in London and the loss of their older son Nate (Rupert Bathurst), while Nate leads the mysterious Girl (Kate Williams) around their lives, choosing snapshots from the past and present to tell their story.
While this may seem like a complicated storyline to follow, it is handled with such care and attention both through Evans’ skilled storytelling and through the quality of its direction, that the result is an engaging and intelligent character study. Patrick McHugh and Marianne Hodgkinson appear to have taken everything in their stride, finding ingenious ways to get away with such a play on a tight budget and minimalist set, while miming actions in lieu of props and furniture may seem off-putting, it is only an occasional necessity that is pulled off with such sincerity as to be barely noticeable.
The play is made by its performances, each cast member fills their role with confidence – aside from a few slip-ups in the first act. I am not an actor by any means, so I have always had admiration for performers’ ability to not only remember their lines, but to then also recite them in an accent, and the cast of Connect Four is no different. While none of the cast speaks with a Northern Irish accent, Skeates, Bathurst, Fenwick and McAleer managed to imitate one accurately (as far as my uneducated ears can tell) without coming off as unnatural or stunted. Each actor (Jolliffe and Williams included) embodied their character fully and rarely missed a trick in bringing them to life (or unlife?). I was particularly impressed by Jolliffe’s emotional performance, spending a proportion of her stage-time in tears and Rupert Bathurst’s take on the violent and passionate Nate, whose tragic tale unfolds piece by piece – running a central thread through the patchwork of these characters entwined lives. To me, Nate is by far the strongest character, flawed and mean as he may first appear. Evans has managed to find the weaknesses that so often lie beneath the surface and pull them out into the open, airing secrets and playing on expectations. While this is not only true for Nate, they are all hiding some part of themselves, with him I felt it was more prominent. Towards the end of the play, I found myself wanting to reach up and give him a hug.
The concept and script definitely have something to say, or to explore. Gender and class are large parts of this, shown through the overly blatant references in Rose’s discussions of feminism and Aidan’s disdain for theoretical education and philosophy, but also through what is said and done. Andrea is the one who holds everything together, she keeps her husband in check with ease, comforts her children and gives some darn good advice. The masculine relationships, father/son and fraternal, are the ones that are volatile and in some ways irrational, the stubbornness of Aidan in the treatment of his only living son, his desire that Ciaran be more like his brother – making bombs and fighting for his country, rather than teaching and studying.
While Evans’ interest clearly lies in the exploration of family and gender roles, the references to ‘The Troubles’ is an interesting choice, for someone with no first-hand experience of such a complicated issue, it could have come off as arbitrary of exploitative, however she has clearly put a lot of effort into researching it and it is treated with honesty, sensitivity and an even hand. Because it is not actually about that at all. It’s about love and it’s about death and the way that our memories of those who are gone define them.
Connect Four has both heart and humour, while it has its tearjerker moments, its charm comes from the blending of the mundane and every day (warts and all) with the unknown territory of quasi-purgatory. There were some small problems with the production and the script, but they were gallantly overcome. Although now the run at the Bierkeller has ended, I hope it will not be the last we see of it, or of Makeshift Wings.
It’s definitely not perfect, but frankly, what the fuck is?
Makeshift Wings will be taking the amazing dystopian absurdist play Subject to Requirement by David Lewis to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.
All the articles below were originally written for Intuition-online, which has since closed down.