Review: Playwright Lucy Burke delivers a darkly moving Glitter Punch ★★★★



Every now and then I spend a night at the theatre that allows me to feel I’ve discovered something extraordinary. Lucy Burke’s challenging new play Glitter Punch is just such an experience. Theatre N16, having moved south of the river to Balham, was the most recent residence for the play and the sounds of a salsa class below and passing trains were soon forgotten as the stars aligned to reveal the raw, affecting and thought-provoking story of 16-year-old college student Molly who embarks on an ill-fated relationship with college tutor, John.

Glitter Punch has already enjoyed sellout shows in Edinburgh – now Some Riot Theatre brings this brutally honest tale of forbidden love to a series of London venues.

John (Hadley Smith) and Molly (Hannah Lawrence)
John (Hadley Smith) and Molly (Hannah Lawrence)

Lucy Burke is a playwright who understands how to play with language – revealing her characters’ inner thoughts through a combination of staccato rapid-fire monologues and sparse brooding silences.

Molly (Hannah Lawrence) first encounters tutor John (Hadley Smith) at her Salford college whilst both are smoking outside. Her observation that he is wearing “actual shoe” shoes betrays her immaturity as much as her social immobility. Her vocabulary is limited and her emotions often strangled by a seeming inability to pause for breath. She appears acutely aware of her own shortcomings and her self-deprecating put-downs are used as a form of self-harm designed to make attacks from others seem less painful. “I’m shit with words and my tits are too small” becomes her mantra.

Hannah Lawrence [Photo: Michael Shelford]
Hannah Lawrence [Photo: Michael Shelford]
It would be easy to over-play someone like Molly as Salford’s answer to Vicky Pollard, but Hannah Lawrence’s performance instead soars intelligently, searching for the truth in the text and imbuing Molly with a porcelain vulnerability.

Hadley Smith has a highly challenging role to play as John: Limited dialogue (I only counted a few lines throughout the hour-long performance) offers him little to hang a characterisation upon but rather than allowing this to restrict his performance in this uneven two-hander, Smith, instead, offers up an enigmatic performance and brings an aching depth to the role of a college tutor coping with bereavement.

Hadley Smith as John
Hadley Smith as John

Romance blossoms over cigarettes and a shared vulnerability – John’s father only recently died and it seems that college is the only reliable constant in Molly’s near-feral existence. Courtship is secretive at first, conducted almost entirely in John’s car and flat. Molly’s sexual awakening is awkward, with a scene reminiscent of Carrie at counterpoint to discussion of favourite colours and Friends characters. Whilst their relationship is entirely consensual, there is always the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. This is less Educating Rita, more the grim everyday reality of a girl escaping life with a mother who makes terrible choices and a step-father who often leaves them sleeping in cars.

John’s effect on Molly is transformational – as she says, it’s “like he has marked me but in a good way not like a cat pissing on a tree or chlamydia” but for every bleakly funny line, there is also a profound sense of humanity to Burke’s writing. When Molly finds pills by John’s bedside his explanation is characteristically simple – “I felt very empty”. His description of grief as like losing a tooth – you can still eat but your tongue keeps going back to the hole left behind – is heartfelt.

Theatre N16 in its current home at the Bedford, Balham
Theatre N16 in its current home at the Bedford, Balham

Glitter Punch is gritty and honest and if you want a chance to see two gifted young actors who are destined for great things then I’d urge you not to miss this production. Credit is also due to Peter Taylor’s direction, which allows the play to inspire – with the actors literally breathing their way in and out of each scene.

Every ounce of drama is extracted from Burke’s script and brought to life in technicolor through Taylor’s direction and Lawrence’s outstanding central performance. It would be interesting to see the play (which is only an hour long) extend to allow both actors to play other roles – from “Steve the Dosser” to Molly’s mother’s friend offering her cocaine in the loos at The Horse and Jockey.

Glitter Punch – no frills just thrillingly good theatre

The show, though, is not unrelentingly downbeat. A visit to the beach at dawn is powerfully symbolic of light entering two broken lives, and there are frequent laughs delivered through the sometimes bawdy script “He could fart the alphabet and I’d still love him.”

The final scenes of the play are deeply touching and will best remain a secret as they contain the twists which truly mark out Glitter Punch as a great play by a remarkable new writer. The subject matter will no doubt provoke debate for audiences, but Burke never moralises, instead choosing simply to present the case of a student-teacher relationship and to allow the audience to form its own opinion of a society where 16 years of failure by adults continues unchecked but a relationship with another adult is utterly condemned.

Lucy Burke: the future of British Theatre looks bright
Lucy Burke: the future of British Theatre looks bright

This play has a bright future. If I have one critical observation it’s that in its current form it’s possibly geared more for the screen than the stage – but then I would have missed some of the finest acting I’ve seen on stage all year and felt that Theatre was losing a great writing talent to the world of Film & Television – which really would be criminal.

Glitter Punch
Reviewed 9 November 2016 at Theatre N16
From 21-25 November at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town.
Buy Glitter Punch tickets here

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