Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Saved, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Saved, Lyric Hammersmith

Edward Bond hasn’t granted permission for a London production of his second and most famous play for 27 years. If that seems self-righteous, Sean Holmes’ Lyric Hammersmith production shows why. It makes you realise that Saved is a play to be broken out only in case of emergency.

In fact, there should be a fine for its misuse. Played too often or too carelessly, Saved loses the potent toxicity that makes it fit only for a crisis. It is an alarum of a play: relentless and monotone, too grating to be ignored. With diligently restrained ferocity, Bond shows how a society that is incapable of providing its citizens with purpose strips people of their humanity. When the world outside does not echo the one onstage, Saved’s warning shots become empty cries of wolf.

Holmes certainly can’t be accused of shirking the play’s brutality, nor its uncompromising bleakness. If anything, he goes too far, almost tipping the play from gruelling to torturous. He leaves us nowhere to hide. Bond’s specified empty space is given a white backdrop, allowing no room for distraction. There are only people, actions and words.

Those words are never merely spoken. Instead, everything is barked, snapped, yelled, spat, screamed, whined or needled. Bond’s words are monosyllables, rhythmic and grinding as a saw through wood. With every scene whittling down to a hoarse argument, the effect is as incessant as tinnitus. Holmes has prodded his cast’s performances just beyond naturalism, as a digital photographer tweaks and enhances the colours of reality. Scenes are elongated until they become unbearable; the nagging and backbiting goes on and on.

As such, the frustration transfers from stage to stalls and we find our jaws clenched in sympathy with Len, who bears the brunt of the badgering. He’s first seen attempting to sleep with teenage prostitute Pam, while her father readies himself for work. They give up and sit instead, sharing sweets – children despite adult appearances – and Len moves in to the impoverished family’s home.

Morgan Watkins finds the right note of sweetness amongst brutes. He’s strong, but soft; a good lad who constantly fails to intervene. He watches the baby’s death from the trees and fails to stand up either to or for Pam, a ragged and vulnerable Lia Saville. When she accuses him of sitting on the Radio Times, he goes through a full-blown slagging match before finally standing up for proof.

There is no respite from such frustrations for Len. Pam’s parents’ arguments have grown into a permanent state of war. The mere existence of one spouse sets the other’s teeth grinding. His friends, led by the callous and cowardly Fred (Calum Callaghan), goad each other on until any intervention becomes impossible: too big an ask, too risky a self-sacrifice. And so, on it goes, cycling through scenes, stretched and hernia-inducing, that flare up and simmer down, but never get extinguished.

It is a hot sleepless night of a production, all dead eyes and discomfort. Holmes attacks with a nail-file rather than a sledgehammer. Sure, even now, the stoning draws sickened groans – the unseen proving its power with each wet slap of stone on raw meat – but he also manages to make Fred’s hooking of bait repulsive, even mimed, when the worm’s flesh resists the barb before being punctured. Then, there’s the baby’s crying, unattended for five minutes, that scratches away as only crying babies can. It sounds like a shrill accordion vomiting bile.

As such, for all the bravery and skill of Holmes’ production, Saved is hard to recommend. My notebook is littered with torture references, from hairdryer’s held against skin to drips tapping on foreheads. Certainly this is a piercingly effective production, but it leaves you irritable, not morally outraged. Perversely, were its edges softened, Saved might prove more effective.

Photograph: Simon Kane

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *