New Forest Players Ballard School, New Milton Darren Funnell 26 October 2023
Eric Chappell should have kept to comedy. Dead Reckoning, at the New Forest Players, is a play that values exposition and polemic over any dramatic coherence, with no throughput of character line for the actors to tag onto, and plot twists thrown in with absurd frequency to pretend something has happened. It’s the sort of psychological thriller that even a Channel 5 Commissioner would turn their nose up at.
It goes a bit like this. An artist’s wife, Alison, was murdered by a man called Slater in the park outside the artist’s house. Slater is released from prison without serving his full term. Artist remarried Megan with indecent haste. Artist is supposedly in anguish at the death and has a moral desire to see Slater punished. Todd turns up and offers the artist a deal.
Cue lots of clunky wordy discussions on the death sentence and parole, a pat explanation of why the artist has an inebriated moral compass, why Megan has been jilted in a relationship that looks back to the previous marriage – you name it. Characters reveal secrets as if they have only just thought about them (paraphrase – “We never have sex” late in the game was a favourite) – but, hey, that doesn’t matter if it forwards, or explains, the plot. By the time Slater turns up with his rhetoric on shirt-lifters, young adults having sex and catching STDs, throwing proverbial bombs at female equality, you do wonder what the writer was thinking. Of course, it being the New Forest, the former had knowing titters, the latter was like dropping a stone in an empty lake.
Now, look, if you like your amateur dramatics as films with far too many plot twists, and you can sit out the first twenty minutes of unedifying opinions on all things crime, then it’s an entertaining evening. NFP do give it their best shot. I’d have been tempted to take a big red biro to the dialogue and put WD40 to the pacing just to cover the lack of dramatic logic, but it is in no way Dead Reckoning – A Comedy and it does what it set out to do.
The writing doesn’t give enough for the cast to hang their hats on, so they do well to keep an even line and deliver the dialogue on cue (mostly) in a naturalistic way. There is something weirdly compelling about David Luker’s nasal snide and suited normality, and Colin Bailey’s Slater – all East End caveman. Dina Berlyn-Hill brings the most energy and stage fluidity as Megan and is probably the best at hitting the scraps the writing gives her. Michael Deacon, as Tony, convinces more in anguish and moral turpitude than he does in ‘shock’ reaction to the thrills and spills to come.
It’s a good size, the Ballard stage, but there seems to be a need to use all of it for every show. For a four hander, there was an opportunity to pull in to a smaller central, more artistic studio offering which would have presented less opportunity for actors to take great strides and given more opportunity for dark and light. For example, I get that the artist doesn’t want to show his paintings necessitating blank walls, but large blank walls across the back of the stage are as interesting as large blank walls at the end of the day. That said, the high window view out into the park was very well done, and if the play was in one of its wordier moments, you could always watch the rather lovely change in time of day in the night sky delivered by Simon Hanney (Light and Sound). The direction (Janet Courtice) could have done with a little less reliance on characters getting up and down from armchairs to back table and back again as the other half of the set was barely used except for the need of a cupboard. There was an opportunity, in a more intimate set design to bring the characters to frontstage which may have helped ratchet up the tension.
Anyway, you probably have the gist by now that had Dead Reckoning been part of my play-reading group I would make sure it got lost in the pile. But, you know, I can still appreciate that different audiences will lap this up and have a thoroughly enjoyable evening. If this wasn’t NFP, and all the talent and expertise that comes with that, I can see another group quickly descending into farcical shambles putting this on. Thank goodness, for NFP, then!
I encourage you to go to Ballard School from 26 – 28 October 2023 to see for yourself. I expect my “WHAT?” is another person’s “YES!”. So go along. It’s the right weather for it. Watch out for bread knives (shocked face!).