22 August 2023
A MIRROR (Almeida Theatre) Review

This play is very difficult to review without giving away plot twists, but I shall try my best.  All the blurbs about the play were telling us from the start that something was going to be not as it seems:  the posters read, “this play is a lie”, which suggested that, perhaps, the play might get swapped (like The Royal Court’s “That Is Not Who I Am”), and show details said that the audience were invited to an unsanctioned wedding where the vows will be followed by “the entertainment”, which intimated that the wedding could be a front for something entirely different.

At the end of the day, I would’ve gotten a ticket no matter what.  Having seen Sam Holcroft’s “Rules for Living” at the National Theatre in 2015 and loved it, I’d been eager to see another play of hers.  In the time between buying the ticket and seeing the show, I read that Holcroft travelled to China and Iran where she met writers who struggled to get their voices heard, and her new play was supposed to have something to do with that generally and censorship specifically.

The play oscillates between a wedding and a story of a soldier-cum-mechanic-cum-writer Adem (Micheal Ward) who submits a play to the Ministry of Culture.  His play catches the eye of a ministerial bureaucrat Čelik (Jonny Lee Miller) who takes Adem under his wing, which involves asking Adem to read the script out loud with Čelik and his secretary Mei (Tanya Reynolds), as well as promises of turning Adem into a star playwright much last Čelik’s last protege, Bax (Geoffrey Streatfeild).

Jonny Lee Miller is fantastic and borderline steals the show.  He is a perfect mix of friendly and menacing, and he keeps us guessing till the very end whether he is a genuine supporter of the arts or whether the wants to suck the life out of them bit by bit.  Ward and Reynolds are mostly believable as their characters, but are sometimes let down by the script.  Streatfeild adds comic relief to keep the pace moving.

Whilst the play is very watchable, it’s largely down to the acting.  I found Holcroft’s script disappointing.  There are several places in the play where the characters talk about how important it is for the playwright to connect with the audience, to make even the most trivial things sound engaging, and to produce work that will stand up to propaganda.  And yet, large swaths of Holcroft’s own writing are incredibly boring.  I am sorry to say this, but time by no means flies during this production.  The audience kept awake by guessing what is really going on or how the seemingly disparate bits we’ve been shown must hang together.  If this play is meant to represent the plight of oppressed writers, I don’t think it succeeds in that at all.

It’s not all bad though.  Adem’s quirk for the material of his plays is quite funny.  Some of the writing reminded me of standup routines where hints get dropped and random things get mentioned only to come back later on in the show. Unfortunately, if you pay careful attention, Holcroft gives away the main plot twist about 15 minutes before you’re explicitly told what it is.  I am not sure why the writing/staging lets it happen, but it does take away from “the big reveal”.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction makes the most of the script and the actors.  I think we are meant to leave the show deep in thought about what it means to be a writer, but I left thinking about how “Rules for Living” was a better play and how Jonny Lee Miller needs to do more stage work in London.  There are a lot of meta aspects to the play (in the folding on itself sense, not the tech company one), but the writing eats itself a little, which is a shame.

Even so, it’s certainly a play worth seeing.  There is live music throughout the show, played wonderfully by Miriam Wakeling.  And, even if not always smooth or original, the idea of the play is interesting on several levels.  If nothing else, it’ll give you something to discuss with your companions afterwards.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £3.

Cat rating: 3 purrs.

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