A Saturday afternoon invite to watch a thriller above one of London’s oldest pubs (there’s been an alehouse on this site in Islington for 600 years)? I don’t mind if I do.

Skin in the Game is the first full-length play from Paul Westwood, who also performs the lead role of ineffectual gambler Jamie. It is a depiction of the consequences of addiction, the politics of family relationships, and the blackly comic menace of working-class contemporary Birmingham.

Kathryn O'Reilly and Charlie Allen in Skin in the Game
Kathryn O’Reilly and Charlie Allen in Skin in the Game

Jamie’s siblings Danny (a chilling and unhinged turn from Charlie Allen that only briefly shows a chink of humanity) and Michelle (a tired and emotional, but pragmatic Kathryn O’Reilly) have their own crosses to bear, involved in petty crime and drugs.

All three have come together in their dad’s grimy flat to sign off the sale which will allow him to stay in a care home, but slowly it transpires that there’s a mystery about what happened to Dad.

Paul Westwood, Kathryn O'Reilly, Charlie Allen in Skin in the Game
Paul Westwood, Kathryn O’Reilly, Charlie Allen in Skin in the Game

Westwood’s Jamie is an essay in the desperation of addiction and the all-consuming need for money: a sweaty, tense and hollow-eyed shadow of a man. He has an easy and warm relationship with his sister, but is clearly scared of his unpredictable brother.

It is possible that Skin in the Game misses some of the earthy humour that characterises those in dire straits in the Midlands, but there is a definite inky blackness in the revelation of what happened to Dad (played by David Whitworth, who presents his character as a manipulative old man with a steely core).

At the performance I attended the Old Red Lion’s famed air conditioning was not working, which made the play feel even more claustrophobic and intense. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near this family, who keep secrets from each other, threaten to expose damaging information, and apportion blame.

Clemmie Reynolds directs with an eye on the realism of a family in a lifetime of crisis, which is underlined by Emily Megson’s deceptively simple set of chair, sofa, record player, and peeling wallpaper.

David Whitworth in Skin in the Game
David Whitworth in Skin in the Game

You can almost smell the damp in the flat in which Dad had sat year after year listening to Engelbert and Tom, despising even the child who did most to care for him. There’s no hint of Mum – not a memory, a photograph.

Skin in the Game is a clever thriller that isn’t afraid to raise awkward questions or make audiences uncomfortable. If you like gritty plays then I’d recommend you head to Islington to take a look before the show closes on 14 September 2019.

Photo credits Stephanie Claire.

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