Parliament Square, Bush Theatre, London, review: An artfully structured work

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The question of how far an individual should take a gesture of political protest in order to effect change becomes a burning issue in James Fritz’s Parliament Square, a piece that won the Judges’ Award in the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. It’s an artfully structured work that follows the story of Kat through three phases. In the first of these, we watch this young wife and mother (superbly played by Esther Smith) who, instead of going to work one morning, boards a train for London where she has determined to tip a can of petrol over her body in Parliament Square and set herself alight.

It’s never revealed what her particular reasons are; for good and ill, this gives the protest a generic dimension.  Instead, in this first section, we hear Kat on the trip to London in heated conversation with her pep-talk-dispensing inner voice (Lois Chimimbha) as they play out the struggle between wanting to remain with husband and daughter and her belief that she will be bequeathing them a better world though her sacrifice.  “When she’s old enough. She’ll get it. Be proud of who her mum is,” declares the voice, insisting on Kat’s presumed historical legacy. The voice is also like a weird version of an athletics coach, pacing the procedure and assuring her charge that it takes only 15 seconds for the fire to the burn through the nerve endings and end the pain. “You can count them in your head.”

What they hadn’t bargained for is that there would be brave young woman nearby who would put the flames out with her jacket.  But in addition to excruciating pain (communicated with extraordinary immediacy in Smith’s performance), survivor Kat suffers the bitter disappointment of discovering that her protest has been ignored and negated.  Her supportive but distraught husband (Damola Adelaja) doesn’t want to know what her drove her to this point.  Her warm, intelligent mother (Joanne Howarth) pretends that she did not receive the explanatory letter posted to her on the way to London.  The piece is ambivalent about extreme activism.  The mother talks a lot of good-hearted sense, mixed with some well-meant but unidealistic moments that suggest personal contentment is paramount; “Family.   Happiness, That’s all that matters, really.  We get a little bit of happiness and then we die”.  To her daughter and the world at large, it’s given out that she had an accident.

The first section is called “Fifteen Seconds” followed by “Fifteen Steps” (a goal in Kat’s gruelling physiotherapy) and “Fifteen Years”.  Jude Christian’s production is immaculate from the gradual clearance of the the stage of domestic objects as Kate prepares to meet a lonely destiny at the start, to the scenes that rear up from the darkness with a drum roll in the convalescent middle passages, to the snatched rhythms of abbreviated dialogue in the coda as the family is gradually subsumed by affluent detachment.  “You can do a hell of lot more alive than dead my girl, don’t you see?  You could dedicate the next forty years of you life to changing things, if you wanted to.”  But as far as we can see Kat doesn’t. Unpersuasively, it appears to be a case of all or nothing.  Likewise, Catherine the important figure of the girl who saved her (Seraphina Beh) swings from one extreme to the other to suit the overinsistent ironies. You wind up with a lot of niggling questions if with no nagging doubts about the dramatic flair of the author.

Until 6 January 2018 (bushtheatre.co.uk)

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