REVIEW: One Off at Newcastle Live Theatre
by Ric Renton
Newcastle Live Theatre
Until Saturday 26 November 2022
Theatre at its best can be a beautiful, visceral thought provoking insight. It can entertain and inform. It has the power to both shock the audience and make them laugh too in the same show. When you've witnessed theatre at its best you appreciate why we started the North East Theatre Guide as a means to promote such shows. This month a show has been created at Live Theatre that stands up with the best that we have seen this year.
Writer Ric Renton was born in Denton Burn, Newcastle. A troubled upbringing led him to spending his young adulthood in prison. One Off is his autobiographical tale about his time in Durham prison. Verity Quinn's set design keeps the action, and the isolation of the participants, well defined. Three raised stages run across the area where the stage normally is. Like three large tables, each one denotes the separate space in which each inmate lives. Each pad showing that whilst action takes place in one, life still continues in the others. In addition, behind a screen is a third area which doubled as either solitary or the corridor in which the prison guards patrolled.
We were sitting on the balcony, looking down on each space. From that angle you became acutely aware of the incarceration - the limited space in which one is expected to spend seven years locked up, at the time of this tale, at Her Majesty's Pleasure.
This tale wastes no time in both setting its stall out and taking the audience along the journey. Unlike some shows there is no protracted exposition to kick it off. We are introduced to Shepherd (Ric Renton) who is in for a violent crime, Brown (Ryan Nolan) who caught doing burglary and Knox (Ricky Shah) who was an accidental kidnapper. Each one talking to the others through the walls of their cells.
Discussions naturally alternate between prison life, the life that they led before and their hopes, if any, for the future. The audience is presented with three very different personalities - but nothing here is contrived. Shah's physical presence, as he paces up and down his pad, make it seem perfectly plausible that he kidnapped the local drug dealer in the back of his Alfa. Nolan punctures the silence with the confidence of a young charva who regularly walks into trouble. (Are Charvas still a thing in the north east anymore?) Renton, by the same token, comes across as someone who has been acting far longer than he actually has. His character has the assured confidence of a man who may be new to this block, but he is wanting to just see his time out at the end of a long sentence. A man who craves a visit from a loved one whilst trying to survive the present. The chemistry between these three works because the audience can accept the actors have lived a bit, as opposed to finding their first role after university.
The writing is really powerful. Authenticity is often a feature of writing from new writers at Live Theatre as they encourage writers from different backgrounds to explore their truth through the form of theatre. People who are not from a place that normally develops theatrical writers are given a voice. One remembers the tour de force that was Wet House - a show that couldn't have been written by someone from outside of that situation. Again here - Ric Renton's past delivers a gritty drama that isn't gritty because someone has synthesised it that way. It doesn't shock in order to stand out as an artificial statement - it has the power to shock because it is shocking.
None of the inmates asks for the audience to forgive them. Redemption is not the motive here.
The fourth member of the cast is the prison guard. Usually unseen by the inmates as he patrols, he is referred to as Jock as he would prefer to be untraceable when they get out. Malcolm Shields creates, at times, a father figure to replace the one that the prisoners may not have enjoyed themselves. He listens but he also gives as good as he gets as he serves the tough love that the system demands.
The two hours, including interval, flew by. Director Jack McNamara has kept the action tight whilst letting the dialogue work its magic. Ali Hunter's lighting design highlights the action in an unobtrusive way.
In short, this was the theatre I was really craving when everything stopped in 2020. The talented cast deliver a great story with a natural flare. Strongly recommended (and as regular readers know - I don't say that very often!)
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Von Fox
Tickets are available online: https://www.live.org.uk/whats-on/one and from the Box Office: (0191) 232 1232