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Review: What Falls Apart at Live Theatre

Torben Betts' first play for Live Theatre takes politics into the bedroom in the run-up to a general election

***
Zannah Hodson and Nigel Hastings in What Falls Apart
Zannah Hodson and Nigel Hastings in What Falls Apart

What doesn’t fall apart is more the question here as Berwick playwright Torben Betts’ first play for Live Theatre imagines the high drama that the current general election campaign has been lacking.

Into three characters Betts decants all the pent up fear, guilt, paranoia and physical and emotional damage which can be laid at the feet of politicians for their foreign policy decisions over the last 15 years.

Afghanistan, Iraq, the Chilcot Inquiry... out it floods during a long Newcastle night as a Labour candidate, a barman and a glamorous woman with a laptop collide in a hotel bar.

As one of these characters runs amok in the second half, set in a hotel bedroom, you wonder why anybody would want to run for parliament, thereby exposing themselves to such clear and present danger.

Then again, none of what happens in What Falls Apart seems quite real – although it begins plausibly enough.

Nigel Hastings’ rumpled Labour campaigner Tom Savage, back in the political fray after a spell in the wilderness, is winding down after a day’s campaigning.

Nigel Hastings and Zannah Hodson in What Falls Apart
Nigel Hastings and Zannah Hodson in What Falls Apart

Most people on the street, he lets slip to the Geordie barman (played by Newcastle-born actor Kevin Wathen), have greeted him with a mixture of indifference and hostility.

Oxford-educated Savage, on Tyneside to revive his career via a safe seat, joshes in a patronising manner with the man pouring with the drinks. With no political minder to hand, you can smell the danger.

Savage can’t remember much about last night but the barman has a photo on his phone – proof that this evening is proceeding along similar lines owing to a tipple too many.

The barman, who has a way with Shakespeare, an assumed Buddhist name and an all-too-knowing smirk, hasn’t had a drink since 2013.

Savage isn’t averse to a tipple or two. He reveals he first got drunk on the day of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for which he had voted when last in office, sacrificing personal socialist beliefs to political expediency.

Having tried vainly to persuade the barman to delete the photo, he’s off to bed when a young woman breezes in. Well turned out and oddly solicitous, she exudes what a Geordie might take for southern arrogance.

Venetia Fitzpatrick (Zannah Hodson) allows the others to assume she’s an academic, up for a conference, but who is she really? Hearing about the photo, her eyes light up.

She is the least plausible of the characters and her arrival heralds the descent of the play into dark farce.

The nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice plays at some point.

Here we have three people who seem not only blind but deaf to each other. They talk, they holler, each deliberately or unwittingly upping the ante, but they don’t listen.

As events on stage become increasingly hard to watch, they morph into ciphers for particular stances and bundles of grievances.

By the end, I’m wondering what other connections to the unfortunate consequences of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq this unfortunate trio can possibly have left to reveal.

A serious play about politics is welcome, a ruckus in a hotel bedroom an invigorating antidote to the stage-managed confrontations of a TV election debate.

But What Falls Apart is a tough watch. The end, like a ceasefire, comes as a blessed relief.

  • What Falls Apart is at Live Theatre until May 16. Box office: 0191 232 1232 or www.live.org.uk

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