Skin in the Game (Old Red Lion)

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.


Drunken Brainstorm – pre-Edinburgh fringe interview

Drunken Brainstorm is a new theatre company based in London. Their debut show, How to Mend the World (with a student play) recently ran at the Old Red Lion Theatre and opens at the Edinburgh Fringe on 12 August at theSpace on the Mile.

The Drunken Brainstorm company. Courtesy of Facebook.
The Drunken Brainstorm company. Courtesy of Facebook.

I asked Tilly Price (actor and producer) and Joshua Silverlock (director) to tell me a bit more about the company and the show.

The title of your piece, How to Mend the World (with a student play), offers many possibilities. What might an audience coming along in London or Edinburgh expect?

JS – It’s a very thorough exploration of what each individual can do to help resolve the various crises currently affecting the world we live in. I think often people think that because they are just one person in a population of 7 billion they can’t make a difference but actually if you are a privileged (preferably white) theatre student from Notting Hill you can put on an experimental play that will have a huge impact. That’s just one option. We explore them all.

TP – I should probably say, Josh is not going to take this seriously. Sorry. It’s a riotous character comedy mixing satire, slapstick, and surrealism to take a jab at some of the more pretentious theatre makers within our ranks.

You’ve chosen Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as your inspiration. Are you planning to tease out some themes from that in your 45 minute show, or keep things light?

JS – There’s a scene in this play in which a cucumber is snapped and grated in place of a penis. Take from that what you will.

TP – The characters in How to Mend the World (with a student play) do discuss The Crucible and it’s ‘themes’ but it becomes clear that the majority have misunderstood the text completely (or not even read it). Indirectly, the play itself exposes certain themes and ideas from The Crucible as part of the narrative but this too is kept light.

Tell me about your cast and creatives, and how Drunken Brainstorm came together. What might we expect from you in the future?

JS – We met on Hampstead Heath late at night. No more questions on this please.

TP – Our cast/creatives are made up of graduates from a few drama schools. We have four actors (myself, Liam Hurley, Francis Nunnery and Oliver Tritton-Wheeler). While some of us attended parts of our education together (three of us met at the Arts Ed sixth form and two on the RADA Foundation), we met as a group in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which we played the mechanicals. We really enjoyed working with each other and decided shortly after that our relationship couldn’t stop with ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

Drunken Brainstorm in How to Mend the World (with a student play)
Drunken Brainstorm in How to Mend the World (with a student play)

You’re at the Old Red Lion in Islington for two nights, then on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What are you most looking forward to from your chosen venues, and how will the spaces inspire your performance and production?

JS – I’m most looking forward to meeting the Old Red Lion himself, I’ve been a fan since a very young age so will be amazing to be working together at last!

TP- All our venues have a different layout which has been great for ensuring our production is very adaptable (this is good for the future too). I think the different audiences we will have in London and up in Edinburgh will be really interesting and with a comedy I love the variety in audience reactions. The different audiences keep the play fresh and I think our venues are diverse which can only add to this. This is our first time at the Edinburgh Fringe as a company and I think the play we have created is extremely suited to that audience so it’s an exciting opportunity.

This production utilised crowdfunding, which is an exciting way for theatre fans to support emerging artists and companies. How can audiences support Drunken Brainstorm in the future?

JS – I need a new bike. So …

TP – The crowdfunding was amazing for us as it has demonstrated the support we have for the company. We were touched by how many people wanted to contribute. The best way to support us now is to come and watch our performances in Edinburgh (at theSpace on the Mile from 12-24 August) or our possible future London/touring shows. Keep an eye out for these on our social media pages. TwitterInstagramFacebook.

Poster for How to Mend the World (with a student play)
Poster for How to Mend the World (with a student play)

My thanks to Tilly and Josh for their time – best wishes to the company for their Edinburgh run!