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[Review:] BEFORE 30, Waterloo East Theatre, London.

This review will consider Before 30, a play written and performed by Tom Hartwell, directed by Phil Croft and staged at the Waterloo East Theatre.

The audience is greeted by a tent and a long spread of empty fast food bags. Despite its simplicity, this set successfully encapsulates the themes pervading the rest of the performance, giving a glimpse into the shabby life of working-class Deliveroo driver Chris -- though perhaps a little too literal with the fast food bags, albeit comedic. Props were then equally effective throughout, adding a sense of realism and embellishing Hartwell’s performance. Being a static set, however, meant that the energy and momentum of the play depended exigently upon that of Hartwell.

For a large part of the play, Hartwell’s performance was engaging and energised. Multiroling, Hartwell’s character changes were, on the whole, effective and slick, especially where Hartwell performed female characters or enacted direct physical interactions between characters, such as the customer taking the McDonald’s bag of weed from Chris. However, there were a few that were difficult to gauge, particularly where Hartwell stood in the same position/pose for each character. It is worth noting that drastic soloist character changes, where one character is standing and the other sat down, for example, are better when further, meta-narrative attention is drawn to them, e.g. a quick frustrated glance or tired gesture; otherwise, the dynamic can seem rather shapeless and odd as one sluggishly moves from one position to another, as it did in places in this performance. It is unchangeably awkward to watch such a change; one must be aware of audience reception and use this to one's advantage.

The technical elements of the performance were not too helpful in enhancing the performance, either. Sounds were seldom synchronous with action, particularly towards the beginning of the play. Lighting was also rather ineffective at points, especially in the interviews scene where Tom performs his various fallible responses in multiple interviews. In moments like these, the lighting states should have changed — not by hue but by angle — to demonstrate these different time frames. As it stood, the untimely snap sound effect and Tom’s indistinguishable changes made for an unrefined sequence. Whilst on the topic of tech, I will also mention here that the music, though only used during the intro and outro, was pertinent and humorous.

As for the writing, there seemed to be a lack of grounded plot. Yes, Tom was searching for a meaning or value to his life before the age of thirty, but the various jokes and gags subtracted severely from this otherwise plain groundwork. The figure of his granddad, appearing minimally at first, then becomes the archetype of self-worth and independence and a rather paternal, constructive force towards the end of the play. This plot progression is too sudden and felt as though an afterthought.

Overall, this performance felt as though a night of stand-up guised within the framework of a play. For the majority of the time, Tom’s character felt as though an excuse for gags and one-liners. The comedy in this performance also relied in places too heavily upon social and racial stereotypes which could be taken as rather inappropriate. This was obviously a decisive element of the performance, given Tom’s persistent references to himself as a “white middle-class man”, which was rather incongruous with his character who has an unstable home and works as a food delivery driver, making this seem rather decontextualised and personal.

The structure of the ‘play’ was very monotonous. Particularly when jokes landed poorly, and they did quite frequently, the performance’s impetus suffered severely. Lack of clear and thorough plot progression and certain discontinuities — e.g. Chris having never wanted to be a chef, his father’s simple drunken misunderstanding, yet this then becomes a personal, decisive pursuit and a vital aspect of the ‘plot’ — prevented this play from extending beyond its budding qualities in the heads of its creators.

“A performance needing thorough re-examination, further conceptualisation and a more particularised context.”


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