Friday, 9 June 2017

REVIEW: Held at Tristan Bates Theatre

Held is set in an all-male prison, where five inmates are shown in two intertwining episodes of drugs, sex and violence. In the first act, entitled Walking, newbie Jamie (Jack Brett Anderson) shares his cell with disillusioned jail veteran Sleat (Anthony Taylor). Initially, the two seem to get along well, and Sleat appears as the fatherly figure keen to take the younger boy under his wing, but things change suddenly and Jamie learns the hard way that nobody can be trusted in prison.

The second act, Dog City, reproposes Jamie's ordeal from a different perspective. Set in the prison's lavatories, it shows the consuming and self-destroying passion between baby-faced Finn (also played by Jack Brett Anderson) and his controlling lover Cal (Duran Fulton Brown). Between them stands the sleazy drug baron Ryde (also played by Anthony Taylor), who plays some ruthless power games to satisfy his perverted needs. 

The subject is strong and has the potential to set the table for a very interesting discussion, but Tina Jay's volatile script lacks the dramatic charge necessary to make it resonate. The tension built before the interval isn't satisfied in the second half, where the plot comes to a standstill and nothing eventful happens for several minutes. Learning from the programme that the playwright has worked as a teacher in a men's prison, one would expect to receive an informed insight on the precarious relationships between inmates. Instead, the scenes presented in Held are hardly credible and the writing loaded with stock phrases that feel more appropriate for a TV drama than a life-changing conviction. 'Will you save me Cal?' asks the vulnerable Finn, tormented by his burning love and the abstinence from drugs.

Topics like loneliness, estranged children, education opportunities and the difficulties to find a job after prison are mentioned in passing but never appropriately explored. Instead, the action revolves around the unlikely explicit romance between Finn and Cal, who cuddle and openly talk about their love in the lavatory, unconcerned about being caught by other inmates.

The uncredited set design is poor and suffers a few malfunctions. A window drawn on a cardboard sheet is betrayed by the blue-tack supposed to hold it and suddenly flies under the feet of the spectators on the first row, whereas the toilet bowls, drawn with a white chalk crayon on the auditorium's black walls, leave smears on the actors' clothes when they lean on them. The lighting is often static but crucial in marking the change of scene with a blackout. 

The only highlight of this production is the acting, which maintains high standards, despite some challenging moments. Jack Brett Anderson and Duran Fulton Brown are two credible lovers. Whilst the former curls up, looking helpless and fragile, the latter's twitching upper lip exudes rage and, attracting each other as two polar opposites, their physical chemistry is tangible. Anthony Taylor offers a valuable support in both acts and appears on stage relaxed and confident.

Held is a prison drama which falls short of its purpose and requires a deeper exploration of its characters to succeed in delivering a stronger message.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★
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