Review: HighTide: Mudlarks – The Cut, Halesworth

The black mud on the foreshore of the River Thames conceals many secrets. Across the centuries the mud has swallowed up the unwary, depositing their remains and belongings years later for treasure seekers.

For three teenage Essex lads, the twists and turns of the mighty Thames offer both hopes and frustration. The shipping that sails by, the twinkling lights of Kent on the opposite bank and the lure of London upstream all offer hope of escaping a mundane life. However, tides soon change and the actions of one night will change the course of all three lives irrevocably.

Wayne, Charlie and Jake end up on the foreshore after a night of crime forces them into hiding. As the waves lap the layers of their misdemeanours become clear. What starts off as petty crime soon takes a darker turn as the consequences of their actions become clear. Ringleader Charlie, bravado bolstered by inhalant abuse, shows no remorse but, for the more naïve Wayne and for Jake who has plans to escape this dead-end lifestyle, the consequences are more acute. As the night becomes darker so does the tension as events slowly spiral out of control.

Vickie Donoghue’s debut full length play is an astonishing achievement, capturing what seems to initially be an innocuous event that plays out night in, night out across the country but slowly, like the Thames mud, unearths constantly shifting detail that alters the course of the evening. It’s a subtly shifting landscape as the dynamics between the lads ebb and flow and it’s a landscape that, despite the grim and grimy setting, is beautifully drawn. Characters are wonderfully conceived, with Donoghue capturing the language of South Essex youth perfectly.

We have Charlie, outwardly the bully of the piece. A 16 year old that one could easily see soon heading for a life in and out of prison. Full of cocky bravado and a permanent sneer, a confidence in part fuelled by the aerosols he sniffs from a plastic bag. That bravado though is somewhat of an act, and attempt to impress both his peers and the local girls. James Marchant’s performance is pitched perfectly. Arrogant to the extent you want to slap him but also somehow vulnerable, a trembling post inhale mess that struggles to coherently explain why a girl sending him abusive texts gives him hope of a relationship.

Mike Noble’s Wayne is the innocent of the group. Clad in an oversized bobble hat, Liverpool football club t-shirt and parker, there’s the sense of an oversized child here. Somewhat simple, so desperate for the sense of belonging the group offers that even the taunt of a prison strip search and induction hold no fear as long as the trio remain together. Noble’s portrayal is impressive, moving and devastating as he reveals the true desolation and loneliness of a life that will be forever shattered after the night’s events.

Jake (Scott Hazell) is the dreamer of the trio, education and study his chance to move to a better life. Hazell shows real torment over the actions that unfold that night and the realisation that his chance of university and a new life is ebbing away is beautifully conceived.

Staged in traverse, Amy Jane Cook’s evocative foreshore set brings out an unlikely beauty in the industrial detritus and Will Wrightson’s direction makes full use of the long stage, without ever turning it into the sometime tennis match that traverse causes. Wrightson builds the tension throughout and as the stark light of dawn breaks the piece moves towards its gripping conclusion, beautifully and gut wrenchingly delivered by the young cast.

Donoghue’s piece pulls no punches and is dark, harrowing and in moments totally bleak but there are undercurrents of humour, beautifully observed detail on friendship, dreams, poverty and relationships here as well. It’s also totally compelling and gripping – a perfectly captured slice of teenage life that packs a real emotional punch. This is that rare thing, a debut play that captures contemporary life so well and takes the audience on such a journey that it’s hard to think of how a second play can beat it – a tantalising prospect to look forward to though.

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