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TNC Archive 2015
REVIEW

Burnt Oak

By Laurence Lynch

Dir. Nathan Osgood
★★★★★

A plays revival offers audiences a chance to revisit a production they either missed or loved and one should always jump on the opportunity to see these revived works. Burnt Oak started its life in 2011 at the Leicester Square Theatre and become a hit with playwright Laurence Lynch’s text offering an unflinching look at life in North London.

Nobby, Billy Lydon, an apprentice painter who’s currently waiting to get his own flat from the council, meets 16 year old trainee hairdresser Susan, Mikaela Newton, on one of his drunken nights out. The following morning after a rather embarrassing introduction to Susan’s mother Margret, Brede McDermott, and later a more confusing and challenging introduction with Susan’s ex-con no-nonsense talking dad George, Jason Wing, the young couples relationship between begins to grow. 

Nobby’s naivety is compliment by his genuine innocence. He is a man who needs a break but doesn’t realise it and now, for the first time in his life, he seems to be placed in a position of happiness. Though he might not be the best apprentice out there his charm and delightfully upbeat personality is endearing which helps cement his friendship with Terry, Dan MacLane. Nobby spent his childhood in care after the death of his parents when he was young which has meant that for most of his life he’s had nothing to hold on to and no family that he can call his. When Susan tells him that she’s pregnant things change irreversibly for him, the family he’s always needed is within his grasp but is Nobby able to control and deal with his demons in order to achieve this that he so desires.

Burnt Oak is one of those rarest of British plays that give audiences a unfiltered, and at times unflattering, authentic look at some of the life that is around us. Lynch’s writing is tight and bold and he is able to produce a great amount of tension, humour, and drama without making it unrealistic. Much like Andrea Dunbar’s classic Rita Sue and Bob Too Lynch he has based his play on real experiences which lift it greatly whilst also giving a voice to the much unheard working class. The language that Lynch uses brilliantly brings back to life Cockney Rhyming Slang which has this powerful draw that brings the audience closer to this reality he’s created. 

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By the end of the first act the surreal, which verges at times on the plain right absurdness, of Lynch’s text leaves the audience in hysterics. You’re never really sure what you make of Nobby, you like him, a lot, but you’re left wondering if it is just his youth that seems to be hindering him, and yet he is a young man without any guidance. But by the start of the second act the tone drastically changes, Nobby’s vulnerability shows itself in the most heartbreaking of ways and his conversation with Terry is one of the most beautifully written and delicately performed scenes you are likely to see.

 

MacLane allows Terry to look at Nobby differently, he’s no longer ‘up for it’ and there’s a hidden look of pity on his face as he sees Nobby for the first time in a few days. And Lydon fails to hold back from presenting the true Nobby and as he stands there with bruises on his face and an oversized torn coat every word he says has a resounding impact on the audience. 

Making his West End debut as Nobby Billy Lydon is sensational in how he has brought Lynch’s troubled, lonely and scared character to life with a reserved, natural intensity whilst ensuring the innocent and emotionally richness is never lost. He is a man trying to do right, be supportive, making himself ready to be a father, but at time it seems as thought it is stacked against him.

The chemistry between Lydon and Newton comes across as genuine as their relationship goes from good too bad with Newton giving a stunning performance as Susan. With McDermott turning in another of the plays most unforgettable performances as Margret, a religious and over worked housewife who has to contend with her own personal hell. Rounding off the cast are the only two actors from the original 2011 production Jason Wing, George, and Dan MacLane, Terry

Being older than Nobby it is clear that Terry is enjoying having a young, active and sociable young guy around. MacLane is self assured but not confident as Terry, he’s horny, not really getting any, and even takes to giving Susan’s mum the eye when she comes round the flat. Towards the end MacLane becomes slight withholding as Terry, the banter that he has been sharing with Nobby now gone and replaced with a respectful pity.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that Nobby has to encounter is George, a gently hunched over, chain smoking, tea drinking, former criminal. Wing excels as the dominating patriarch George and leaves the audience, at time, in awe and slightly conflicted for laughing at some of the things he says and does. He is brutal in his portray yet also maintains the ability to subtly engage with the rest of the company and injecting a powerful character with unstoppable energy.

I did, wrongly it turns out, have some doubts about how Leicester Square Theatre’s Lounge world work. The space is intimate and after walking into the packed room realised I might not get a decent seat but all this erased itself as soon as Lydon and Newton stumble through Susan’s front door. Director Nathan Osgood’s keeps the pace of the production moving along tightly with him allowing the company to use the space in innovative little ways.

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"There is never an attempt to present these characters in any stereotypical form, they are simply presented as who they are."

The arts in the UK are fraught with demands for equality, this need for actors and creators from working class backgrounds to be given the same opportunity to share their stories. Burnt Oak is revived at a perfect time not least because of its overall theme but also a huge light on what life was like in North London. There is never an attempt to present these characters in any stereotypical form, they are simply presented as who they are.

Lynch’s writing is honestly, bold, hurt and dark but it is also subtle which gives Burnt Oak a whole new different type of power. A show that has such varying types of characters to go from one extreme to another - George’s loud, angry and mean spirit patriarch, to Nobby a vulnerable, confused and, by the end, alone young man - takes skill to do so in the way he has.

Burnt Oak is essential theatre that has the power to stay with you long after you leave the theatre.