Theatre Review: Stitched Up

stitchedupStitched Up will have you in stitches.Rosemary Jenkinson (Planet Belfast) turns her trademark wit and locally informed whimsy on the NHS in Stitched Up, a one-act satire directed by C21 Theatre Company’s Stephen Kelly. Whether it is withering snark about Health Minister Jim Wells (whose ears will be burning during the play’s run!) or the well-timed jabs at the legendary god-complex of surgeons, audiences at the Lyric are in for a treat.

Unexpected disaster isn’t uncommon in fiction, the trope of the ‘no good, very bad day’. It’s not as often that we get one character wallowing in his personal doldrums, while the other character’s Jimmy Choo’s are walking on air. Unfortunately for NHS surgeon Aidan (Richard Clements), he gets to have the bad day after leaving a pair of scissors – or, as he keeps trying to impress on people, ‘micro-scissors – in a patient. Meanwhile, his wife Kate (Roisin Gallagher) is on the top of her peace facilitation game as she seals a deal to demolish the peace walls in Belfast.

Of course, things can only get worse. An ill-advised attempt to be a whistle-blower, a chocolate and rhubarb cake, and an accusation of racism later, see the one-time power couple mired in debt, bickering viciously with each other and struggling to show a united front to the world. Enter Ruari (Darren Franklin), a young man with a need for a disgraced surgeon in financial need. The grit in the pearl of the play, he is the catalyst that forces Kate and Aidan to verbalise their varied dissatisfactions and desires.

Jenkinson is a talented playwright no matter what genre she tries her hand at, however I have to admit a fondness for her satirical offerings. She has a sharp eye for the ridiculous, and a knack for finding the tipping point between wry and cutting. It means her satire tends to draw chuckles, instead of gasps, but there is still plenty of meaty criticism there too.

A less nuanced author would have turned Kate into a reiteration of the infamous shrew who shares her name. She is avaricious, selfish, shrill and despite (or due to) her protests to the contrary, a little bit racist. Jenkinson and Gallagher, who worked together previously in Jenkinson’s Titanic play White Star of the North, manage to humanise her with the application of subtle grace notes of shame and affection.

Under Kelly’s carefully taut direction Gallagher also shows admirable restraint with Kate’s character in some of the more emotionally fraught scenes. Her tightly controlled performance keeps Kate vibrating with tension, but never bouncing off the walls. The character occasionally comes across as ‘stagy’ in her mannerisms, the actor doesn’t.

Against the dramatic peaks of Kate’s emotional highs and lows, Clements performance is much more low-key. His character, the recently disgraced NHS surgeon, is laid-back and lanky, always ready with a tension breaking (or causing) quip. Even in the middle of a depressive episode mid-play, Clements keeps the emotional turmoil locked down. Glimpses into Aidan’s inner self are tightly guarded, and few and far between.

It could have played against him, but on the whole it works well. The energy between the controlled Aidan and the emotionally labile Kate, has a convincingly spousal give and take. Even in the first few scenes, there was a convincing intimacy with the characters.

That easy, lazy charm also worked well with some of Aidan’s less likeable statements. It slips them into the narrative, catching the audience off-guard as they catch the sly dig about weight or the craven attempt at buck passing almost too late to disapprove. Just like in real life, where you start laughing before you realise the joke is sexist/racist/inappropriate and have to awkwardly try and reclaim that approval.

Darren Franklin had a more difficult row to hoe with dangerous outsider, Ruari. Not only a late arrival in the play, his blend of wide, blokey charm and quiet threat was difficult to calibrate. There are a few occasions with the balance slips towards goof, but on the whole Kelly and Franklin do find the right proportions.

There are a few places in the play where, in only 75 mins, Jenkinson hasn’t been able to weave the plot threads quite tightly enough. Ruari’s role in the play is obvious with a Doylist reading – there to provide the challenge to both character’s philosophies – but a Watsonian take leaves his narrative arc a little threadbare.

Ruari does, however, close out the play with a joke that has the audience chuckling. It isn’t an unsatisfying last glimpse of him.

Stitched Up is a sharply informed and sharply funny piece of writing, with Jenkinson landing jibes on everyone from the aforementioned Wells to the always mockable Bono. There’s not a lot to laugh about in the NHS crisis, but what there is Stitched Up finds. Well worth joining the audience for a night.

Stitched Up is at the Lyric Theatre until February 21. After that it will at venues across Northern Ireland, find out when it will be at a theatre near you here.

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