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Review: Jerusalem

“Bright, blaring and bold.”

during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers played at Villa Park, Birmingham on 15th October 2016

Jerusalem, the play by Jez Butterworth, was first performed in 2009 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It revolves around “local waster” Johnny “Rooster” Byron on St George’s Day, when the council serves him an immediate eviction notice. Byron and his friends visit the local fair, drinking and smoking the day away while the inevitable is just around the corner. Beyond this primary plot Byron is actually helping a local boy escape abuse, allowing him to stay in his caravan. However, when locals hear about his kind gestures to the boy they decide to pay him a thuggish visit.

On entering the auditorium the stage is strewn with litter and the amazing spectacle of a caravan is positioned centre stage. One feels as if they have entered a rubbish tip, only to realise all the play’s action takes place here. The use of smoke to fill the space only adds to the mystery surrounding the caravan and makes the audience yearn for the production to start. The set of Jerusalem is utterly fantastic and it complements the action on stage perfectly; especially towards the end of the play when Byron is beaten up, with the audience glimpsing only the silhouettes of punching and golf clubs swinging inside the caravan.

during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers played at Villa Park, Birmingham on 15th October 2016

Tom Conradi sets the play in motion with a rendition of Jerusalem, which abruptly comes to an end. Multicoloured strobe lights flash sporadically and heavy bass music pours into the auditorium as a drunken rave begins, stirring the audience and laying the foundations for the action ahead. Soon after the rave disperses birdsong fills the space, contrasting the mayhem just seconds before.

The performance of Johnny Byron by Tom Cain could not have been better executed. Cain plays Byron as if he has a dual personality, an interesting and effective interpretation of the character. His first entrance, with megaphone in hand and clearly “off his head”, is markedly different to his softly-spoken words at the production’s end. Cain interacts fantastically with Ginger, played by Dominic Gleave, as he points fun at him for being a plasterer rather than the DJ he claims to be throughout. Cain initially makes Byron an overbearing and unpleasant character yet by the end the audience are emotionally attached to him and upset at the violence to which he is subjected. Cain embodies the role perfectly and reminds the audience not to judge a book by its cover.

during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers played at Villa Park, Birmingham on 15th October 2016

Always partial to a spot of exaggerated and humorous acting, Alex Hemsley fills the boots of the professor with gusto. His facial expressions are second to none; looking distraught at losing his bottle of gin and overjoyed at its return. The professor, one of the only characters without a yokel accent, has an extremely posh twang to his voice making some words uncommonly hilarious. It is impossible not to find his pronunciation of “Dee-Jaaay” frightfully amusing. The professor also possesses the most distinguished costume with a tweed waistcoat, jacket and tie to reinforce his character.

Dominic Gleave gave a performance worthy of mention. Gleave’s Ginger is a character any audience member would struggle not to love. Ginger is played with great enthusiasm and the audience is dismayed as they see him fail to be truly accepted by the main group. This is a testament to Gleave’s ability to connect with the audience, revealing an ostensibly distasteful character as far more complex. James Palmer’s interpretation of drink and drug addict Lee is extraordinarily believable; his mouth frequently opened wide in bemusement as if he has retreated from life. Henry Fletcher’s impeccable expression of bewilderment as he crawls out from beneath the caravan is also a pleasure to witness.

Props, on the whole, are used very effectively. Euan Livingstone as Davey uses his winnings from the fair to great humorous effect; juggling a huge novelty gorilla with comedic pink star glasses as he drags an oversized Tigger cuddly toy. He ecapsulates Butterworth’s envisaged personality of Davey immaculately as elsewhere in the play, perched atop the caravan, he simultaneously balances a can of lager while peering through a pair of binoculars. The drinking of alcohol is generally well executed, though there are a few instances of cans being upturned without any evident spillage. On the other hand, Cain’s portrayal of Byron making himself a drink during the opening of the play is utterly convincing and comedic; cracking an egg into a tankard, adding vodka and milk for good measure and spilling the majority of the concoction down his front. However, I did find myself occasionally irked by the use of the cigarette props. On multiple occasions they were stubbed into hands, clenched in fists and generally ignored, detracting from the realism of the performance. Furthermore, in the first act it is cigarettes galore, with even the professor having a go, yet by the end nobody is smoking and it seems as if they have been forgotten.

Barnaby Johns and Hassan Sherif should not go unmentioned in their less prominent but fundamental role as council representatives. Johns’ authoritative tone as he menaces “we know you’re in there, Byron” interrupts the scene’s tranquility as we discover that Byron faces a dilemma. For me, the crowning achievement of this production is the combination of acting and technology. At one point in the play Sherif’s character films Byron speaking directly into a camera, and the feed is projected live onto the side of the caravan. In allowing every member of the audience to observe close-up the passion and upset of Byron it makes this scene all the more poignant.

If you love “edgy” theatre this is certainly the ideal production for you! As a traditional theatre lover myself, I still overwhelmingly enjoyed the performance and would urge anybody to cancel prior arrangements and see Jerusalem while they still can.

★★★★☆


Jerusalem is showing at the QEH Theatre on Thursday 1st and Friday 2nd December at 7.30pm. Tickets are priced at £5 for adults and £3 for children.