No gain in Reign of pain

Spring Reign Photo credit: Musa Chowdhury

Spring Reign Photo credit: Musa Chowdhury

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The images of horror from war-torn Syria may be ever-present on our TV screens, but what is the reality for those in a living room on the front line of that country’s ravaged city of Aleppo?

That’s the setting for a bold and innovative new play by award-winning writer Rob Johnston.

His work will already be familiar to those who have seen his plays around the region’s fringe theatre venues, but in Spring Reign he has fashioned a two-act drama that could aspire to main stage production.

It’s sold out both performances here and there are hopes for a wider tour.

Originally incubated as a short performance at the Imperial War Museum, just across the water from the Lowry, it is based on first-hand accounts of Syrian refugees in Manchester, aid workers, activists, journalists and photographers.

Johnston has threaded these into a drama in which a married Syrian couple risk their own safety by sheltering two English ‘refugees’ caught up in the conflict, a war photographer and a teacher, the latter desperate for news of her fiancée who has been abducted by security forces.

It’s a dramatic contrivance of course, but it is this cultural counterpoint that drives the narrative and gives the story a relevance that stretches across continents, and audiences.

Johnston is adept at phrasing the exchanges between nationalities, even the humour of mis-translation, or the well-thumbed telling of a George Best anecdote.

But he can also have his characters break out into first-person testimony direct to the audience, or have them all take part in Scheherazade-style story telling.

Director and producer Benedict Power keeps all of that under firm control, even if the acting is a little uneven. It is all aided considerably by a splendid multi-instrumental soundscape provided live on stage by Chris Davis, seated inside a kind of musical majlis.

Projected images of a barbarous war are projected on the walls throughout Spring Reign, but even they cannot prepare you for a final video sequence that shakes its audience to the core.

David Upton