Commons, one of the Mermaids productions at the Edinburgh Fringe, is reviewed by Catherine Potter
Marcus Thwaites. Oxford-educated, an MP and a Brexit voter. You’re most likely going to judge this man based off those three categories. It is impossible in this day and age to remember that MPs are also the same species as us, but sometimes their personal life is bared and their humanity starkly exposed. It’s similar to when you see your lecturer in a coffee shop flirting awkwardly with the barista and you remember that they were actually born and didn’t just spring up fully formed with notes in hand.
Commons, by our Deputy Editor Elliot Douglas, rips said Marcus Thwaites (Adam Spencer) from the Parliamentary floor and deposits him in a small hotel room, where he is joined by Sam Jones (Edd Smith), a young liberal university student. They begin to discuss their relationship and how they haven’t seen each other for months and a lightbulb switches on in the audience’s heads: Commons is written in reverse chronology. In Douglas’ capable hands, this narrative structure is not gimmicky or cumbersome; it is effectively used to chart Marcus and Sam’s relationship from end to beginning and reveals the origins of their inside jokes, banter, and finally how they met in the first place.
The crucial thing about Commons that elevates it from entertaining to highly compelling is the fact that Sam’s profession as a rent-boy is not pressed upon the audience. Therefore, the final scene in which Marcus tries to pay Sam, just after Sam has revealed that he cancelled the rest of his clients and has been funding his life through acting, becomes all the more upsetting. If Sam’s profession had been persistently pointed out it would have become throwaway, but Douglas instead alludes to it until the end, letting the audience become invested in the love story and the societal settings of the play. It’s only as the play moves on and the men become younger that we start to remember Marcus is paying Sam to be there; Sam’s disgust at Marcus’ money at the end brutally reminds us they have fallen in love.
Director Louis Catliff makes interesting and effective choices that heighten the message, by mostly only allowing Marcus and Sam to dominate the bed in the middle of the set. He relegates six of the seven supporting characters (played by Sarah Chamberlain and Hannah Ritchie) to sitting in the audience for most of the play, emphasising Marcus and Sam’s status as lovers. Chamberlain’s Joanna sits on the bed at the start of the play, but it is not until the end that we discover she is Sam’s new girlfriend. Catliff also makes sure Marcus’ career hangs over the action, even if it is not explicitly expressed, by using recordings of politicians debating Brexit.
Spencer’s Marcus was full of artificial imperiousness, but he also cracked with heart-wrenching vulnerability, especially in his interactions with his ex-wife and his final moments with Sam. Spencer and co-star Edd Smith had wonderful chemistry in every scene, especially in the more tender moments. Smith’s Sam begins the relationship as a straightforward and open teenager who just wants to do his job, but we also see him as touchingly wide-eyed, naïve and besotted, insisting Marcus pay attention to him. The end of the play is where we see both Spencer and Smith’s real power; portraying the sadness and anger as Sam finally lets Marcus go. With a final heart-breaking reference to An Affair to Remember, Sam reminds his ex-lover that he has moved on, and Marcus should too.
The two chorus actresses were only seen in flashback scenes interspersed throughout the actions, but these scenes were not unneeded as flashback scenes can often be; they made total sense with regards to the action. The pair pulled on and pushed off characters like clothes. Two standout characters were Chamberlain’s Pete (Sam’s charming and terrifyingly threatening ‘employer’) and Ritchie’s Henderson (an amusing and stereotypical Oxford boy). All these characters were integral to the plot, and the women’s strong performances ensured the message was not lost.
Commons is not overtly political but the political points were subtle and effective. Politics is why Marcus felt he had to marry a woman and pretend to be straight; politics is why Sam had to supplement his income by selling his body at the age of 15. The political atmosphere of Britain (Brexit, the expenses scandal, etc.) hangs over this play and lends it extra gravitas. The production was hugely enjoyable, sad and tender. Douglas, Catliff and everyone in this team should be proud of what they have created: a love story for a world in political turmoil.
STARS: * * * * *
Catch Commons at theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36) at 17.10 until 19th August