THE HUMAN CONNECTION – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – a tantalisingly ambiguous double bill

Stephen Kennedy, Joshua Williams and Ishia Bennison photographed by Pete Le May

Written and directed by Eugene O’Hare

Omnibus Theatre until 4 July 2021

https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/the-human-connection/

Eugene O’Hare is truly an actor’s writer, in that he creates richly textured, multi-layered characters that give his casts something to really get their thespian gnashers into: see Miriam Margolyes’s venomously nasty yet oddly haunting old lady in Sydney And The Old Girl or the desperate, damaged, Orton-esque losers that populated his human trafficking tragi-comedy The Weatherman (both of these premiered up at the Park Theatre before the pandemic). These are not people one would necessarily want to spend any time with in real life but they undeniably make compelling theatrical company.

His creations for this double bill of short plays, a monologue for a father and a duet for mother and son, sharing a common theme of dislocation and parental guilt, are more low-key than in his full length work but they still pierce the heart and trouble the mind. His capacity for finding the lyricism in everyday speech reminds a source of real pleasure and wonder.

The first playlet Larry Devlin Wants To Talk To You About Something is a mini-masterpiece of bleak perfection. Stephen Kennedy (to be replaced by Ed Hogg from 30 June) as Larry is delivering a confession: as a late middle aged man, he is still plagued by guilt from a time when he struck his own child. He goes on to relate how this same child now has an adult life of his own, the pair have a friendship of sorts, and yet still Larry frets. Why?

What follows is not even an especially original plot point (which I am not about to reveal, by the way) but what lifts it into something fine and extraordinary is the gritty, detailed melancholy of the writing, and a performance of such delicacy, precision and pathos by Kennedy that it’s almost unbearable to watch. The misery seeps out of every pore, and it’s there in the slouchy, hands-in-pockets stance, the querulous semi-smile under haunted, hopeless eyes: here is a man who has long forgotten what it’s like to be happy. It’s beautiful, detailed work….O’Hare himself directs, and he and his leading actor are alive to every nuance. This is spellbinding stuff, and Kennedy is nothing short of magnificent.

Child 786, the second piece, is arguably more ambitious, being a response to the pandemic, and specifically the UK’s response to it on both popular and political levels, refracted through an almost Pinter-esque prism as a mother (Ishia Bennison, hugely impressive) welcomes her grown-up son Lennox home from what might be some sort of recovery facility. In the meantime, Covid has happened and we watch both of them struggle with a changed world, her retreating into banal musings and buzzwords, he alternating between passivity and frustration, superbly handled by Joshua Williams who is astonishing at simultaneously projecting vulnerability and aggression.

The real dramatic meat of Child 786 lies in Lennox’s conviction that as a young child he was sent by his mother to be part of an unspecified, but highly sinister, vaccination programme. So convincing are both actors, and so unerring is the dialogue O’Hare gives them (apart from a slight tendency to have Lennox spout facts and figures at length, which gets a little wearisome) that it is never clear which, if either of them, is telling the truth. Or is it just a question of perception? The ambiguity is tantalising, and if it lacks the intensity and focus of its predecessor, Child 786 nevertheless succeeds in being an engaging, thought provoking meditation on the unreliability of memory, and a darkly humorous juxtaposition of the humdrum with something potentially much more alarming.

These plays, whose impact is felt long after their short running times are over, were originally scheduled to be part of the Barbican Centre’s Ghost Light festival, which ended up being shelved due to the pandemic, and it is a considerable coup for the delightful Omnibus Theatre to get to premiere them. A brief but satisfying evening.

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