Grey Matter

Sun 21st – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Hannah Congdon

at 18:07 on 25th Aug 2016

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This tightly-wrought psychological thriller imagined by the sixth-formers of St Paul’s School is a masterclass in technological creativity. Based on the research of psychologist Adrian Raine and neurologist Oliver Sacks into the relationship between violent behaviour and hemi-spatial neglect, the play situates itself in a neurotreatment centre in Norfolk, in the wake of ‘’the 2022 school shootings’’. Newly imposed laws state that young people considered to have chemical tendencies towards psychopathic behaviour must be clinically reconditioned, and the audience is introduced to four of the young men who have fallen victim to such laws.

I need hardly point out that this is a fairly complex opening, and you might wonder how on earth this elaborate backstory was explained in the first five minutes. The answer is through the use of some of the most imaginative and impressive lighting and sound I have seen at the Fringe. The room blacks out as thumping techno music starts, and four white screens lined with red strip-lights are placed sideways-on across the stage, dividing the four central characters into individual cubicles. As they stare robotically ahead of them, making sudden sharp movements in unison, images of graphs, heart-beat monitors, brain scans, and, most strikingly, swirling pools of blood are projected onto their bodies. It is a hugely impressive enactment of the invasive testing to which the boys are subjected, and nicely sets the tone of what is to come.

This is a thoughtful examination of psychological development, particularly in relation to class. Three of the four boys relate stories of neglect and abuse in childhood, and one is prone to frequent outbursts of violence at the mention of trigger words relating to his past. There are moments of real insight into the suffocating silence that surrounds discussions of mental health among men; the more fragile Tyler, sensitively played by Noah Breuss-Burgess, conceals his gnawing depression by acting out with half-hearted aggression. His eventual disclosure of his traumatic upbringing to fellow-patient Mason is truly touching, as the boys self-consciously navigate a topic of discussion that they evidently have no idea how to put into words. It is a highly ambitious project, with an astute and politically engaged script, and you cannot help but admire the guts of the schoolboys for tackling such tricky territory in such a short length of time.

The unfortunate flip-side is that it is also one of the least polished performances I have seen here; there are fumbled lines, scenes that need either developing or axing, physicality that needs to be slicker and more confident, and accents that need real work. The acting is good, but not quite good enough to convince the audience that these boys actually experienced the kind of trauma they claim to have, or really have the capacity for violence to do the things they do or threaten to. It is incredibly frustrating, because this has the potential to be a performance even more electric than it already is, and I have a feeling that with access to a broader group of actors director Andrew Broughton could could create something truly astounding.

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Darcy Rollins

at 16:19 on 26th Aug 2016

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'Grey Matter' is an energetic, gripping and fundamentally clever play that achieves that oh so elusive thing that nearly all plays strive for; simply a good story you cannot stop watching and thinking about.

Set in a dystopian future where those ‘scientifically discovered’ to be +79% likely to commit a crime are placed in institutions, gripping chaos and big moral questions potentially await the audience of this play. The idea is taken from the 2013 book ‘An Anatomy of Violence’ by Adrian Raine who writes that “40 to 50 percent of the variability among us in antisocial behaviour is explained by genetics”. With inspiration from ‘Young Offenders’ to ‘Without Conscience’ on psychopathy, the scene is set for an interesting cast of characters. The ingenuity of the young cast in picking such a rich topic shows that good dramatic instinct is just that: instinctive. The script came from improvisation. There are superfluous speeches that edge into cliché dialogue at times but overall the interactions between the different characters are gripping. Daniel (Luke Cullen) and Jack (Callum Maclean) create an interesting rapport. Between Tyler (Noah Breuss-Burgess) and The Mason (Felix Mercier) camaraderie is subtly and skilfully built, hidden under their bravado. Breuss-Burgess and Mercier show talent in bringing hints of believable sensitivity to these characters. The same can sadly not be said for moments of violence in the play. With the exception of RIP (Jack Donaghue), it is hard to believe of the physical danger these characters pose. Donaghue needs special mention. He is genuinely frightening as he bullies Mercier’s gentle Tyler. Even his voice is effective as he draws it out menacingly.

The music and use of technology are terrific. A Blue Monday-esque beat builds tension and consistently infuses the production with energy. In a stroke of genius, images are projected onto the characters' bodies in the sequences where the patients are examined by the doctors. Almost a symbol of this show, the actors are hardly precisely in time and the images are not always squarely projected onto them but the whole idea is splendid.

Alas there are, technically, flaws aplenty. For one, the script could be sharpened. There is potential for biting satire: the evangelical journalist saviour Daniel mirrors that of the doctors. But this is never fully realised, leaving Daniel looking more like a weakly drawn portrait rather than an intentional hypocrite. In fact, a huge flaw is the characterisation of the middle class characters and doctors. The doctors are disappointingly one-dimensional and almost ‘evil’. While R.I.P, The Mason, and Tyler are nuanced figures, Daniel and Jack undoubtedly need more honing.

Yet, in spite of all the roughness, this was one of the two most exciting plays I have seen. I’m giving it four stars without a doubt- but how I’d love, one day, to give five.

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