Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave was the winner of the first Bruntwood Prize and performed at the Royal Exchange Manchester. The Southwark Playhouse now presents the world premiere of Musgrove’s latest play in the Little – a coming of age story in an apocalyptic world.
England is in the grip of a deadly epidemic but Derek leads a sheltered life in a small village near the coast. He spends his time writing poetry and wishing his life away. When the mysterious Lydia arrives, Derek seems to become alive for the first time. The young woman represents everything he has ever dreamed of but it is obvious that she is hiding something. When Derek discovers her secret, vicious forces are already moving in on Lydia to take her away.
Ellan Parry’s set features a harsh landscape dominated by a rusty caravan in a field of yellow grass, a seat that was ripped out of a car, and plastic sheets standing in for the sea. When the show starts we see Derek reading his poem, sitting on top of his caravan. Suddenly a young woman appears who is looking for the sea. Derek is intrigued and shows her round his home. Later, he even cuts a path to the sea with a machete to enable his guest a comfortable walk to the sea. Whilst Derek prepares a cup of tea for his guest, Vince arrives and immediately takes over. Derek is forgotten.
The first act of the play focuses on the relationship between the three young characters – the quiet Derek (Alex Lawther) who hides in his writing, the alluring Lydia (Hannah Britland) and the unpredictable Vince (Alexander Arnold), who bullies Derek whenever the mood strikes him because he knows Derek won’t defend himself. Despite being a terrible bully, Vince has a certain charm and Lydia is drawn to him. In the second act we enter Musgrave’s culture of fear and paranoia, caused by the dangerous disease, incurable and deadly, that threatens the whole country. Social order has broken down and groups are forming to take control of the situation and protect those who are not yet infected by the disease, no matter what the cost.
The subject of the play is harsh and brutal but Derek’s character brings gentleness and poetry to the production, skilfully directed by Russell Bolam. Alex Lawther, who impressed as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, is outstanding as the socially awkward Derek, who experiences love for the first time and is forced to face his worst fears. Hannah Britland and Alexander Arnold give equally convincing performances as Lydia and Vince and get strong support from Laura Howard as Sarah, Simon Lenagan as Peter, and Clare Almond as the Old Lady.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Jack Sain
Crushed Shells and Mud is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 24 October. Click here for tickets
Suitable for 14+