Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Mudlarks, Bush Theatre

Review: Mudlarks, Bush Theatre

A dead end in a dead end town – and what better dead end for “a generation stuck in quicksand” than the boggy banks of the River Thames?

Three Essex teenagers, on the run from the police after an act of brain-dead vandalism, settle for a marshland hideout. They can’t stay here forever – not with the tide coming in – and going back would almost certainly mean facing the consequences.

“This,” says the snarling bully Charlie, “is a temporary situation.” Only it’s not. Not really. Certainly not for Charlie. Theirs is a generation scuppered by its place in history. Charlie, Wayne and Jake have been screwed by the happenstances of their births. Given time, the country – indeed, the world – should recover, but, for them, the damage is done and it’s irreversible. So it was even before the paving slab they threw from a flyover, careered through the windscreen of an oncoming lorry. Only Jake, about to take up a place at college, a hard-earned lifeline, looked back and saw the pile-up below.

Vickie Donoghue’s debut, first seen at the HighTide Festival in May, is a taut, tense three-hander that follows the logic of its particular scenario with patience and diligence. Donoghue shows a great capacity for empathy; her writing throbs as the three boys’ pulses quicken and, later, sobs on their behalf. It’s given a fantastically tight production by Will Wrightson, in which you can really sense the world beyond the action; the small town bathed in flashing blue lights. Credit needs sharing with Amy Jane Cook’s detailed and atmospheric design and the nuanced conviction of the young cast: Mike Noble, Scott Hazell and, in particular, James Marchant, all itchy insecure aggression as Charlie.

However, it’s also pretty archetypal stuff. You could dress the three boys in any decade’s clothing, give them any non-London accent without significant loss. There’s little specificity in Donoghue’s diagnosis of this generation, beyond a single – stunning – line: Jake’s “I have so many dreams that when I wake up I can’t remember them.” In that, she captures the crisis of those taught that anything’s possible, who find, on reaching adulthood, that it’s not. Otherwise, teenage boys have always been capable of mindless destruction, of naïve, chest-puffed violence and of near-total disconnects from reality.

That’s furthered by the play’s perfect triangle – bully, blockhead and bright spark; almost id, ego and superego – which is too convenient to convince. They all feel like creatures of the stage, a fact not helped by a certain over-insistence in the writing. Donoghue returns to the same contrived, symbolic dreams – of masculinity (Wayne), of a metal detector (Jake) – once or twice too often, and her lurch into imagination sits oddly with the social realism. The tint of optimism is just too forced and the dead end, just too dead.

Photograph: HighTide Festival

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