Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Vera Vera Vera, Royal Court

Review: Vera Vera Vera, Royal Court

To give Hayley Squires her dues, she writes impeccable dialogue. It is deft, responsive and, ninety-nine per cent of the time, handles subtext elegantly. Her characters play political games, skirting their true feelings and performing the people they want to be perceived as into existence. This takes some serious skill and, in one so young, suggests a natural playwright.

However, the problem with her debut play Vera Vera Vera is that it’s very difficult to pin down. The ideas contained, all of which are beautifully hung through careful signification, are nonetheless too wishy-washily diverse to coalesce into an argument. It seems variously a play tackling neolithic masculinity, class and the cultural glamorisation of violence. Either Squire has stopped short of picking a cause or she’s been unable to tie a number bugbears together. The result is a watercolour vagueness and it’s not helped by a production that pulls in different directions and leaves you scrabbling for an interpretative inroad.

For starters, Squires gives us two parallel narratives that, for the best part of the hour, seem unconnected. In one, two teenagers, Sammy and Charlie (Ted Riley and Abby Rakic-Platt), warm up for a playground fight to serve retribution for snide rumour mongering. In another, two siblings prepare to bury their brother Bobby, a soldier recently killed in action. His sister Emily (Danielle Flett), and her friend and secret lover Lee (Daniel Kendrick), want him upheld as a hero and all-round good guy; brother Danny, a bilious brute disturbingly played by Tommy McDonnell, has nothing but disdain for his comparatively wet brother, who failed to protect his sister’s reputation. After you’ve searched for mirrors and echoes between these two – and they certainly exist – Squires links them by blood to no great effect: Charlie turns out to be Bobby’s cousin.

The most prominent idea is that of honour and violence. On the one hand Squires seems to warn against the hollowness of mythologizing Bobby in death and is critical of computer games such as Medal of Honour. Yet, she also upholds the nobility of Sammy’s defending Charlie’s honour and Lee’s standing up to Danny over Emily. She’s not quite preaching peace, pure and simple, despite the implications of Sammy’s belief that “cuddles are the way forward,” or Emily’s sadness that “no one gave anyone cuddles at the funeral.” Nonetheless, Squires seems more at home with sentiment than resentment and the best sequences are the softer moments in which Sammy and Charlie’s relationship blossoms.

But then, Tom Piper’s design, an idyllic English landscape besmirched with litter, so strongly suggests a state-of-the-nation play that one’s thoughts turn to English repression and moral decay. You start to think in terms of class – the teenagers seem lower middle-class, their elders a Kray Brothers underworld – that’s not really present. I can’t remember a play so badly served by design. Not because Piper’s design is bad, in and of itself – it’s neither unsightly nor insignificant – but because it’s wrong; a red herring.

All this is not to say that Squires needs to write about something directly, but that Vera Vera Vera sends you into a tailspin. The sensation is like trying to solve a jigsaw that doesn’t fit together and, despite Jo McInnes’s skilled direction and excellent performances from McDonnell, Flett and Rakic-Platt, Vera Vera Vera is more frustrating than it is illuminating.

Photograph: Simon Kane

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