After garnering critical acclaim in previous runs at Suffolk’s HighTide festival and Theatre503 in London, this intoxicatingly potent production of Vickie Donoghue’s Mudlarks transfers to The Bush theatre where we find it is anything but stuck in the mud.
The audience is split into two, facing each other down across the long traverse stage – a stretch of foul Thames mud in Essex scarred with discarded lager cans, shopping trollies and spent needles. This is the river at low tide in the middle of the night, where we join three 16/17 year old boys for a gripping 90 minutes of hiding from the ‘pigs,’ for reasons the play will teasingly unravel.
The house lights disappear with a piercing crack and characters Wayne and Charlie vault over a crumbling brick wall into the onstage mire, collapsing and gasping for air. These are two boys hopelessly hindered by unhappy, unstable childhoods, soon to be joined by their old comrade Jake, the only one of the trio with a future mapped out. He has just been accepted into sixth-form college, an unforgiveable betrayal in the eyes of his cohorts. As events go from bad to worse, Jake refuses to accept he is as doomed as the others. “I have plans,” he reprises pleadingly; “I’ve got a letter.”
The set and lighting create the perfect portentous playground for the cast of three to do intensive justice to Vickie Donoghue’s tight thriller, which is as rich in complex characterisation and metaphor as it is a rollickingly watchable crime tale. Comparisons can be drawn between Donoghue and that old master of psychological, socially resonant pulp; Jimmy McGovern. When the tide of the river begins to threaten the characters’ very existence it serves a dual purpose; as an analogy for their dearth of self-determination and control but also as a helluva nail-biting ticking-clock device.
Scott Hazell, James Marchant and Mike Noble have bonded selflessly as an ensemble, and are particularly skilled in adjusting to the numerous, tight changes of pace demanded by the narrative. Whether they are propelling the action forward or making time stand still as they fatefully reminisce, their performances lend a sensual vividity to the production. You can almost smell the fear and confinement.
Sat in the front row, in the midst of the action, I caught this power full in the face. When nerve-addled Jake vomits graphically into the mud, Wayne comments: “It always makes you feel like you’re going to be sick don’t it?” I sympathised with this sentiment, beginning to feel somewhat green around the gills myself. When Charlie began huffing deodorant from a plastic bag, amid a slew of comments about the vile stench of their hiding place, I wondered whether I was about to make an impromptu and undignified cameo appearance as a spewing reporter. My involuntary nausea was, I think, testament to the power of this cracking production; it’s hard to get the stink of it out of your nostrils. Unlike its tragic protagonists, Mudlarks looks set to have a very promising future indeed.