Friday, 12 June 2015


So, if you're already a friend of mine, you'll know this. If you don't, here's the deal: there is a small theatre venue in Norwich, just to the north of the city centre, housed in a converted barn, in the grounds of the Sewell College. It seats a maximum of 100 people on three sides of a stage which is viewed from above the performers. It has a unique and intimate atmosphere, and is ideal for many kinds of theatre, but is especially appropriate for plays where we, the audience, feel that we are eavesdropping - sneaking a peek through the 'fourth wall' - at what goes on 'behind closed doors'.

The current production - Mint, by Clare Lizzimore - is perfectly suited to this venue. Focusing on the effects of imprisonment, not only on the convicted criminal but also on his family, it brings an extraordinary intensity of insight into the ebb and flow of emotion as the clock ticks relentlessly on. As Alan lives through his sentence, moved between prisons, working out in the gym, walking around his reduced space, reflecting on his life, we are reminded of the happenings in the world (for real) during the late 1990s and into the new century, and kept in touch with the lives of his sisters and his parents. Most importantly, we also see and experience the emotional and practical difficulties of life 'outside' once he has served his time.

Without wanting to give away any spoilers - you need to see this show for yourself - the cast, crew and director do a truly magnificent job of conveying the frustrations, the fears and the anger that arise from this situation. The evening is also full of humour - some of it dark, some shocking, some simply glorious comic timing. Jen Dewsbury's direction is neat, precise and elegant, unafraid to use silence and the unspoken visual message, and the members of her stellar cast respond beautifully on all levels.

The family dynamic, with all its flaws and fears, is accurate to the point of pain. Each of the six members of the cast - across a wider-than-usual age range - display a professionalism, maturity and skill that is frankly staggering.

Glenda and Roger Gardiner - married in real life - head up this dysfunctional family unit in a way that sometimes has us squirming in recognition. Steve Dunn, as the prisoner Alan, maintains an awesome focus and stamina as his character is dragged through many more emotional mills than feels just, and as he paces the floor of his cell, we follow him through the circles of regret, cheerful resignation, despair and explosion. Rebecca Wass, as Alan's sister, shows extraordinary skill in conveying the changes in her own life across the six years of the action of the play (including the birth of her own child). Rachel Godfrey-Bennett, as Alan's younger sister, displays a maturity of performance way beyond her own teenage years, with a development of character and focused stagecraft that I have seen lacking in performers three times her age. And last, but definitely not least, the extraordinary Connie Reid likewise brings conviction, clarity and an innate sense of timing that is normally only achieved after many years on stage. It is especially impressive that the director has worked so beautifully with a wide age range - across something like five decades - to create such a satisfying whole.

I'd also mention that Jonathan Adkins' superb set and David Nicholas Green's original music contribute in no small measure to an immensely satisfying package.

This is not a play to watch if you're after light-hearted, frothy escapism. (You can easily find that on the television.) This is a production that gives food for thought and discussion, that moves and shakes, that provokes and intrigues. It demonstrates that there is room on our local stages for every age. It is worthy of attention and appreciation and a great deal of praise.

Photograph: Sean Owen of Reflective Arts

Mint plays until Saturday 13 June, and then again from Wednesday 17 to Saturday 20 June, 7.30 pm each night plus a 2.30 pm matinee on the final Saturday. Tickets are available from Prelude Records in St Giles, Norwich, or via the Sewell Barn website.

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