“shortcomings are largely made up for by three exceptional performances from the cast”
S. Asher Gelman notes that polyamory is a subject that’s seldom broached in art, and he’s not wrong. Luckily, his play Afterglow is here to remedy that, following a successful Off-Broadway run in 2017 and 2018, which bravely gives a voice and a platform to an often ignored or stigmatised type of relationship.
Centred around husbands Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney), Afterglow explores the impact that Darius (Jesse Fox) has on their open marriage when their friends-with-benefits arrangement starts to develop into something much heavier with Josh, leaving Alex feeling excluded. The play’s frank attitude towards sex (it opens with a threesome and features a significant amount of full-frontal nudity) allows for a poignant and thought-provoking interrogation of love, intimacy, jealousy, and trust in non-traditional relationships.
Although Gelman’s script doesn’t always feel like it’s taking these themes are far as it could, however, it is well-paced and sporting a heft of relatable and quirky dialogue (for example, a running gag where Josh and Alex refer to their forthcoming surrogate child by the fruit that the foetus is currently the size of). The mechanics of the writing can be a little too obvious, as one character will contrive a reason to leave the stage just so that the other two can remain alone; yet it also never feels like Gelman pulls each thread enough to facilitate a truly satisfying climax. These shortcomings are largely made up for by three exceptional performances from the cast though, as the detail and nuance that their portrayals bring exacerbate the core themes in multifaceted ways. Hart and Mahoney deliver a beautiful domestic intimacy in their scenes together, with Hart in particular embodying Josh with a hugely endearing playfulness – one moment in which Josh mockingly hides from Alex under the pillows of a couch is utterly delightful. Tom O’Brien’s direction utilises instances such as these to excellent effect in fulling fleshing out these characters’ lives.
Libby Todd’s set design is immensely detailed – to the extent that it even features a functioning shower – with just three tables being boundlessly multi-purposed and garnished with a whole deluge of props. If anything, it’s too detailed though, as scene changes felt extraordinarily long with all the table-rearranging and set-dressing that had to take place. This was mired further by the fact that – due to the aforementioned nudity – these transitions also featured the actors having to get dressed and undressed. There was a noted effort to make these scene changes character driven, but they ultimately just felt fiddly and arduous, and subsequently killed the pace of the show.
Overall, Afterglow is a window into a lifestyle that is sorely under-represented and on that basis alone feels vital – it’s just a blessing that the play is also searingly characterful and ruminative too.
“a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes”
The premise for Alexis Michalik’s play is a simple one: a director, an actor and a social worker go into a maximum security prison to hold a drama class for the inmates. Only two prisoners turn up. The class goes ahead anyway, and truths are revealed. It is described in the press release as ‘a captivating and darkly comic exploration of life, within the walls’, and, at a time when knife crime is on the rise in London, and just under 79,000 men are currently being held in British prisons (figure from Home Office website) this seemed like a brave and timely piece of theatre for the Park to be staging. Instead, what a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes it was.
In the programme notes, Michalik describes meeting some maximum security prisoners and how this meeting intrigued him sufficiently to lead him to write this play. One can only wish that this interest had led him to do some more thorough research. Among the more idiotic plot points of this drama was the fact that a child was conceived between a maximum security prisoner and a visitor during visiting time. As someone who has spent a great deal of time visiting prisons in the UK over the past three years, this reviewer can testify to the complete impossibility of this premise. Similarly, the idea of three lay people with little or no prison experience behind them being left alone with two violent offenders is absurd, as is the fact that the director would (a) be allowed and (b) have the utter front to ask an allegedly violent offender to re-enact the circumstances that led him to his imprisonment. There are some extraordinary companies and organisations creating drama with prisoners and ex-offenders in this country (Clean Break and Synergy Theatre Project to name two); it might have been an idea to engage with them.
The play is translated from the French, so it may well be that some of these issues are explained by cultural difference, but if you are clearly locating the action in the UK – Norwich and Durham are name-checked – this is basic stuff.
The drama opens with the director (played, with meta-theatrical symmetry, by the director, Che Walker) asking the audience directly, ‘What does theatre mean to you?’. The first audience member to answer replied ‘Storytelling’, and here, alas, this play fell short. It was impossible to understand why this story was being told, and also, particularly in the second half, it was not easy to follow such story as there was, as it was being told. Che’s director-character also made much of the power of emotion, and again, despite numerous on-stage breakdowns, the performances here, by and large, remained resolutely surface and unconnected throughout. Victor Gardener, as Angel, brought some welcome gravitas to the stage, but the characterisation in the main seemed skittish, rushed and unfocused. It takes more than a change of accent to outline a new character, and the lack of physical change in the performers from role to role was notable.
Accents that worked well were found in the sound and lighting design. Rio Kai’s double bass playing in the onstage underscore was a highlight, and David Howe provided some deft atmospheric changes with his lighting design, particularly against the back wall. Despite these efforts however, and ironically, given its meta-theatrical nature, Intra Muros remained theatrically unsatisfying, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.