Date Reviewed: 28th January, 2009
Venue: The Library Theatre
Like Jimmy McGovern’s TV series The Street, Joe O’Byrne’s The Bench not only shares a naff title but also a thematic concept. The setting is the fictional community of Paradise Heights, already explored by this promising writer in one man show I’m Frank Morgan (due to return to The Lowry in March).
In a series of short scenes, the lives of 15 characters intersect around a park bench. Homeless Eric (Clyve Bonelle) holds a candle for petty thief/artist Gabrielle (Phoebe Marie Jones); burned in a childhood house fire, Eric rails against God for disfiguring her (then instantly apologises). Local loan shark Frank Morgan might dabble in extortion and the odd bit of a torture but he’s got a moral code, and has no time for drug pushers or paedophiles intruding on his patch. War veterans Archie and Lenny meet every day for a brew and a chat. The former has a collection of medals and a collectible rifle, which nasty low-life Matty plans to rob – he doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.
Six actors play all the roles. Ste Myott is flesh crawlingly hateful as Matty, if slightly less convincing as pensioner Archie. Ian Curley adds light and shade to the potentially one dimensional Frank, whilst Stella Grundy – reigning queen of the Salford fringe – has some good comedy moments, including one scene as a sexually frustrated wife. Ben Hood is suitably ethereal as the angel Corny. Best of all are the scenes between Jones and Bonelle, which are genuinely touching; Bonelle in particular, brings a bruised sensitivity to the part of vagrant Eric.
Like Jim Cartwright, O’Byrne has a knack of finding poetry in the most ordinary situations: he also has real affection for his characters, and they feel like flesh and blood people. If you have to quibble – and I do – it’s that O’Byrne has also chosen to direct. At times the pace is sluggish, with characters aimlessly drifting on from the wings. A bit more variety and attack with the movement would have earned this production a fifth star.
The press blurb describes The Bench as being ‘about love, life, death and rebirth.’ Dare I say it’s about much more? The struggle of being human and finding your place in the world.
Still don’t like the title though.