Review: One Day When We Were Young / Lungs, Roundabout season at Shoreditch Town Hall

“The world is going to need good people in it"

Those champions of great theatre Paines Plough make a rare foray into the capital with the Roundabout season – three new plays from three upcoming playwrights which can be seen individually or in a triple bill over one day at the weekend. We opted for the triple bill but sadly, the first of the plays – Penelope Skinner’s The Sound of Heavy Rain – was cancelled due to adverse weather affecting the venue. We were still able to take in Nick Payne’s One Day When We Were Young and Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs though and what a fantastic pair of plays they turned out to be.

Paines Plough have constructed a mini in-the-round wooden theatre, akin to the one in which Mike Bartlett’s Cock was performed at the Royal Court, and they have placed it in the historic and underused surroundings of Shoreditch Town Hall. The intimacy of the space is something really rather special and director of One Day When We Were Young, Clare Lizzimore really explores the possibilities it offers with a beautiful production of Nick Payne’s play.

Leonard and Violet are a young couple in love but it is 1942 and he’s about to head off to the war, so there’s a night of grand plans and first encounters ahead as the uncertainty of the future leads them to seize their chances as if the world might end that night. But the future does come and the war affects them in hugely different ways and so as we revisit the couple first in 1963 and then again in 2002, a regretful eye looks back on what might have been, the bottled-up emotions that resulted and the unshakeable connection that comes with one’s first love. The same two actors, Maia Alexander and Andrew Sheridan, play Violet and Leonard across all three periods and yet something that could have been fraught with difficulty becomes something hugely moving.

Lizzimore has the actors dressing up in preparation for each of the three dates in front of us to the tune of music from that period, the simplest of things but incredibly effective at guiding us through the timeframe, giving us slight additional hints of character, keeping us thoroughly invested in the fates of this pair. And both Alexander and Sheridan do some excellently subtle work, under-playing the advancing years so that it becomes heart-wrenchingly convincing rather than over-emphatic. Payne’s writing seems more intimate than usual here, an amusing recurring theme about consumer goods aside and altogether, this added up into an understated but immensely moving whole . 

Oddly enough as we commented at the time, Lungs ended up feeling more like a Nick Payne play than its predecessor, specifically Constellations, and not just because Kate O’Flynn’s stunning performance called to mind Sally Hawkins. A young couple prowl around a bare space, enclosed on all sides by the audience, as their relationship is deconstructed. But where Payne delved into the sprawling world of alternate possibilities to devastating effect, Macmillan compresses time to achieve a similarly epic scope in tracing the impact of beliefs and decisions over a lifetime.

It is practically an endurance event for O’Flynn and Alastair Cope as the play constantly bounces back and forth between them and as it relentlessly ricochets forward through time, each moment is highly charged as we stop at key events, a Cliffs Notes of this relationship if you like. The crux of the matter is their initial debate about having a child together and the consequence this will have on her particularly green credentials, not to say the planet at large. O’Flynn is simply mesmerising as the woman known simply as W, capturing her mercurial shifts in temperament, her shifts in position as she attempts to square the theory of her principles with the reality of her situation and the desperation that comes at not quite managing it.

Cope’s M is more of a springboard for W than quite as fully-fleshed a character, though much of the play’s lighter humour comes from his patient tolerance of his high-maintenance partner and his physical work is more than equal to O’Flynn’s. Director Richard Wilson encourages a smooth kinetic energy throughout which does a remarkable job of making the production flow seamlessly despite the timejumps, though the tendency to have the actors lying down for bed scenes felt an unnecessary addition, considering the prevailing stylistic approach. 

So a fantastic double bill, and though a shame we didn’t get to see the third, I suspect that that might have made it a little too long of a day. Still, we will get to visit again for The Sound of Heavy Rain and in the meantime, I’m putting Lungs up there as one of the most exciting new plays I’ve seen this year and One Day When We Were Young not far behind.

Running times: One Day… 75 minutes (without interval) and Lungs 100 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3 for each play, free cast-sheet also available
Booking until 27th October

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