Concrete and Piss and Time Travel

A common complaint about new plays is that they are rehashes of old ones – but no-one can say that about Alistair McDowall’s Brilliant Adventures.

I may as well dive straight into the story this time. Act one, scene one, Luke is in his Middlesbrough council flat – clearly a flat that no-one else wants. He is a 19-year-old with mental issues and – as sadly is often the case for people growing up in the wrong area – a very bright teenager whose talents are going to waste. His mates and brother have no aspirations above benefits and petty crime. His father his a drug-addled wreck. Scene two, enter a man – well-to-do, from the south, well-spoken, lives in the upstairs flat, offering work for everyone. So the first question is what an obviously wealthy man is doing with a flat in such a deprived area? You might think he’s up to no good, and you’d be right. But there is an even more pertinent question: what on earth is that great big telephone booth-sized cardboard thing doing in Luke’s flat?

Duh! It’s a time machine. Don’t you know anything?

Let’s not understate the skill needed to write a play about a cardboard time machine. When you are watching someone else’s play, it is very tempting to think “I could have thought of that idea”. But it’s one thing to come up with a good idea, it’s quite another to make it work on stage. The challenge here is the common challenge faced by all science fiction stories: you can take massive liberties with the laws of physics – really, what can be a greater liberty than building a time machine in your own flat? – but you cannot take liberties with characterisation. They must remain plausible, and the obvious question is why the inventor of a time machine hasn’t been snapped up by NASA. Alistair McDowall has thought of this, and handled it well. Luke distrusts the whole world (he didn’t even take his GCSEs because he think it’s a waste of time) and doesn’t want to show his invention to anyone. The few mates of his who know about it are too disorganised to do it for him, and besides, if a pair of chavs from Middlesbrough told you they had a mate who’d built a time machine, would you believe them? That was a very skilled bit of characterisation.

But before you get too excited about the brilliant adventures they’re going to have, I must warn you the title is a bit misleading. I was expecting a play about a bit of harmless escapism from their bleak lives, but this is more like one of these stories where a genius’s invention turns into a nightmare because the bad guy will stop at nothing to get the invention into the wrong hands. I fail to see what’s so brilliant or adventurous about having your teeth pulled out by a psychotic megalomaniac drug lord. What we have instead is a good thriller, competently directed by Caroline Steinbeis, but I think a more accurate title would be the generic one Charlie Brooker suggest for all drama set on sink estates, Concrete and Piss. Or, since there’s a time machine involved, maybe Concrete and Piss and Time Travel.

But, whatever your expectations, this play is undoubtedly one of the most original plays I’ve seen. The problem with a lot of “new” writing is that it’s formulaic. For all their good intentions, most new writing theatres have very exact ideas of what they want new writing to be about, and consequently many premières are little more than rehashes of old plays, with similar plot, similar setting, similar style (this is not pointing the finger at Live in particular; it’s a problem throughout the new writing scene). But I’ll be damned if anyone can find a play that this one has mimicked. And it’s not just an original idea: 75% of the work is getting the idea to work as an actual play, and it does. Even though the premise of the play is utterly impossible, the build-up and tension as the progresses is gripping and – dare I say it – thoroughly believable. One small snag is that it’s not easy to keep track of what’s going on – that’s not an easy task given the subject matter, but it’s still a nuisance. I admit I had to look at the script afterwards to check I properly understood what happened.

Just one word of caution of Alistair McDowall: try not to become dependent on local stereotypes. He paints an extremely unflattering portrayal of Middlesbrough, and whilst it’s not the job of a playwright to provide a fully comprehensive picture of every location used for a play, I am a little uneasy about using a Newcastle theatre to put on a play showing how shit Middlesbrough is, just as I would be for a play at Middlesbrough Theatre rubbishing Newcastle. Alistair McDowall was brought up in Great Broughton near Middlesbrough, and having read what he said about basing the play in Middlesbrough, I don’t think he deliberately set out to poke fun at an easy local target, but if he’s not careful he could come across that way. It would be an easy trap to pander to Tyne and Wear prejudices about Teesside play after play, so I hope he has the sense to avoid that.

Anyway, back to the play, don’t worry, it all works out in the end. The short version is that the bad guy makes a schoolboy error: threaten the nerd who knows how to do something you don’t understand – the baddies never seem to learn that the nerd always finds a way of using it against you. Honestly, it’s the oldest trick in the book: ambush the bad guy with a future version of yourself. As far Alistair McDowall, whilst there might be a few rough edges with following this play, this is a very promising début. If this is what he can offer new in terms of originality, and making these original ideas work, this is someone definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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2 responses to “Concrete and Piss and Time Travel

  1. Steve Walker

    Chris, now I’ve discovered your blog I can’t stop commenting! I saw this when it opened in the Royal Exchange Studio in Manchester before it moved to Newcastle, and loved it. Worth noting that Alistair McDowall won our new writing award in 2009 for one of my all-time Buxton Fringe favourites “Eighteen Stupid Reasons Why I Love You Lots and Lots” – http://buxtonfestivalfringe.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/brilliant-adventures-start-here.html