Theatre review: Mint, Open Court Festival, Royal Court, London


“Weekly rep” in Sloane Square? The idea might seem about as likely as a season of drama based on strict Dogme principles in Frinton-on-Sea.

But this defunct practice has now been revived as the centre-piece of “Open Court”, the six-week festival in which new artistic director, Vicky  Featherstone, has effectively handed the keys over to the writers for a summer of mould-breaking events suggested by them. 

The “weekly rep” recommendation came from Caryl Churchill, which initially sounds counter-intuitive, but her argument is that dramatists too often languish in a morale-sapping culture of workshops, readings and rewrites. Even a short run of a briefly rehearsed full production is better, with the added advantage that “though [the piece] may be rougher there is less danger of innovation being blunted by too much advice”.

Hence the formation at the Royal Court of an ensemble of fourteen actors who, each week over the course of the festival, are rehearsing (in various permutations) one new play by day and performing another at night on the main stage. They are on extraordinarily fine form now in the fourth of these pieces, Clare Lizzimore's Mint.  Premiered in a production of powerfully measured stealth by Caroline Steinbeis, it's a cumulatively devastating portrait of the plight of Alan, a young man struggling to keep his head above water through five years of imprisonment for armed robbery and then, after his release in 2003, through the hopelessness of terminal unemployment and of home life with a family whose tolerance is fraying.

It's remarkable that, in these rushed conditions, Sam Troughton manages to give one of the performances of the year in the central role as the strained jocularity and underlying shame of the prison visits in the play's first half give way to the still bleaker prospects of the second and as the nagging rhythms of Lizziemore's cannily crafted dialogue start to prey on the nerves. 

When the flustered Alan accidentally knocks over a glass of wine onto the carpet at a special meal he's cooked for his family, it's the flashpoint for his father (Alan Williams) to make a vicious exhibition of him, jeering that his son can't even get an interview to be a cleaner let alone a chef. Troughton's gut-wrenching Alan is incandescent with shame, frustration and fury as, fixing his father with furiously injured gaze, he tips salt over the room and then gets on his hands and knees to scoop it back. 

This unbearably excruciating climax and the verbal rebellion it unleashes are worthy of Edward Bond, while the whole experience is an incisive vindication of the “weekly rep” policy.  

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