BWW Reviews: CARTHAGE, Finborough Theatre, January 30 2014
Is someone born bad, or does society make them that way? Who's to blame? That's the big question underpinning Carthage, which had its world premiere at the Finborough Theatre last night.
Tommy (Jack McMullen) had a troubled life. He was born in a young offenders unit and died in one too. Carthage charts his young life and his untimely demise, whilst taking a sharp look at the way society copes with troubled families. The action centres on a single moment: Tommy's death whilst under retraint by prison officer Marcus Reeves (Toby Wharton) and his colleagues. We move forward and backwards in time, learning Tommy's past as well as the aftermath of his demise.
Thompson's writing is witty, sharp and well observed. Having spent 12 years as a social worker working with troubled youngsters himself, and this comes across with writing that feels painfully real. His characters are well developed, and by the end of 80 minutes you find yourself feeling for all of them, unable to identify any villain.
James Perkins' design is effective. A dirty grey carpet, strip lights a table and plastic chairs are all that is needed to convey an institutional grimness seemingly intended to grind everyone down. Director Robert Hastle uses the traverse staging to effectively make the audience a jury, asking them to pass judgement on the action they see in front of them. He creates an oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere at times, with Thompson's dark humour doing just enough to take the edge of tension.
Lisa Palfrey, as social worker Sue Ruskin, is simply outstanding: forever committed to her impossible job, always fighting to make a difference with her clients even when she can tell deep down that she won't make a blind bit. McMullen also impresses as the young troublemaker guilty of some terrible crime and fully aware of right and wrong, yet still clearly just a child. We see the positives of the relationship with his mother (Claire-Louise Cordwell), whilst we know another unseen side is having just as important an effect. Wharton also delivers a strong performance as the prison officer who becomes a scapegoat.
Carthage asks some very tough questions, and isn't afraid to leave most of them unanswered. Can someone follow the rules, and yet still be guilty? Does a child simply need a hug? Or ultimately, are people the architects of their own demise. The audience is left to make its own decisions. It packs a real punch, and shows what can be done when new talent is supported to tell a story. This is a piece that deserves, and indeed requires, a large audience.