Skin In The Game, Old Red Lion Theatre – Review

David Edgar’s Destiny and Rachel De-Lahay’s Circles are two of the most well-known play set in Birmingham. But truth be told there have always been plays set there and the West Midlands in general. However, in recent years the popularity of Peaky Blinders has sparked in the national consciousness an interest in the region. Far from being ‘idiosyncratic’, a reappraisal of stories from the region – just like Midlands-alumini Shakespeare – have unearth their universal resonance… Written by Paul Westwood and directed by Clemmie Reynolds, Skin In The Game is a family drama with a difference.

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Brothers: Danny (Charlie Allen) and Jamie (Paul Westwood) 

Set in Nechells, Birmingham, brothers Danny (Charlie Allen) and Jamie (Paul Westwood) meet up to settle the details regarding the sale of of their father’s flat. While they wait for their sister Michelle (Kathryn O’Reilly) to arrive, the brothers catch up on their respective lives. From the off we see that Danny is the most ‘successful’ of the two, with his own prospering building business and single-handedly paying for their father’s care home.

By the same token, Jamie is the ‘beta male’, spending most of his time on ‘slot machines’ and allegedly ‘sorting people out with requests’. But while Danny is on the whole very confident and upbeat, Jamie is distracted – and with good reason. Having amassed some sizable gambling debts, keeping one step ahead of trouble is challenging. But it’s the arrival of Michelle where things fall into place and we see the bigger picture.

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One big ‘happy family’: L-R: Paul Westwood, Kathryn O’Reilly and Charlie Allen

In a very oblique fashion, the relationship between the siblings and their father mirrors the tensions and themes in King Lear. Except in this tale, no one is completely innocent and everyone has a past…

While perhaps not the most effusive character on stage, Jamie’s backstory is pivotal to the plot – the way the others treat him and his ‘affliction’. Plays such as Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice have in the past dealt with poker as a form of addiction. However, from a cultural perspective, poker itself has always been ‘cool’, mythologised and an acceptable face of gambling whereas Jamie’s predilection for ‘one-armed bandits’ and horse racing  represents the ‘unglamorous’ experience most people face when succumbing to debt and their gambling compulsion…

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Hard truths: Kathryn O’Reilly and Paul Westwood

While none of the siblings are beyond reproach, in terms of the balance between empathy for a character and a degree of integrity, O’Reily’s Michelle stands out. It’s telling that even Michelle feels little sympathy for her much-maligned younger brother, seeing him as someone who brings trouble on himself. And with Danny constantly reminding Jamie of how ‘workshy’ he is compared to himself, Jamie’s sense of isolation is all but complete. In contrast, Allen’s Danny has the lion’s share of the presence on stage, but behind his swagger, it is Michelle who calls him out on his behaviour and coaxes out his true disposition…

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The coda with their father Philip (David Whitworth), reveals a hitherto unseen side to the equation and it’s enlightening to compare how the characters ‘express’ their ‘devotion’ in person versus words…

For a play such as this, the chemistry (or lack of) between the actors determine whether the play genuinely conveys the family dynamic. On that front, the play is a resounding success, with many uncomfortable moments stemming from the way family know how to hurt each other the most. If Skin In The Game shows us anything, it’s that relationships with family don’t get easier as we get older. They just find new ways to become more complicated.

© Michael Davis 2019

Skin In The Game runs at Old Red Lion Theatre until 14th September.

https://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/skin-in-the-game.html

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