Common People is Alice Shearon’s second St Andrews production and, like the first, explores the issues surrounding university life. Unlike the first, this production is set in an unnamed University during the 90s and largely concerns prejudice as encountered by a first-year student, Brendan P. Quigley.
The opening scene features Brendan, played by Stephen Quinn, introducing the narrative and the characters in the manner of a compere. This ironic device was well-delivered by Quinn and established the subjective, stream-of-consciousness style which characterised the following scenes. This was an innovative move by Shearon and one which largely paid off, as the self-aware nature of the play allowed the audience to consider how their impressions of characters were guided by the presentation of the action.
By far the standout role was Olly Lennard as Jonathan, the archetypal “rich toff”. His characterisation was utterly convincing and completely engaging, as exemplified by a scene where Jonathan speaks to his father on the phone. Although most of his lines were short interjections without much content, Lennard created a level of captivating tension that was remarkable to watch. Shearon excelled in her presentation of Jonathan, not least in his oblivious and insensitive remarks to other students: ‘So you’re poor.’
Hannah Raymond-Cox turned in a strong performance as Penelope, the love interest who doesn’t like judging people at face value. Further exposition of her character would risk spoiling the plot, but herein lies one of the larger problems with the script. Up to a certain point, Penelope seemed to be almost one-dimensional, which somewhat prevented me from engendering any attachment to her. I was confused as to why Brendan would like her at all, especially as they shared very little time together onstage. Initial development of Penelope’s character, particularly the early stages of her relationship with Brendan, would have enhanced the emotion of the final scenes. As it stood, her speeches to Brendan seemed almost too histrionic to be believable.
The supporting cast were largely excellent, not least Michael Shanks as the Glaswegian Robbie, Bennett Bonci as the American JSA and Wendell Krebs as Professor Greenaway. All three of these roles were performed with a genuineness that complemented the play perfectly. Production values were high throughout, especially the lighting effects, which allowed effective transition between scenes.
The play was enjoyable, funny and thought-provoking. Initially, I was perplexed by the relationship between Brendan and Penelope. That said, the subjective nature of the play —the story being told in the first person— means that these impressions were somewhat intentional, as Brendan could have been manipulating the audience by presenting the action as a love story instead of a story of personal growth. The first half of the production dragged a little, and I wasn’t sure how I was meant to be interpreting events. If this uncertainty was intended to make some sort of point, I just didn’t get it.
Once the main plot twist revealed itself, everything came into much sharper focus as the characters revealed their surprising depths, and this is where Shearon’s writing triumphs. As a young playwright, her talent is undeniable, so long as she manages to work out the kinks.
Photo credits: Nick Gonzo