Motortown

Published April 17, 2008

Simon Stephens won a 2006 Laurence Olivier Award for his play On The Shore Of The Wide World. Last night his new work Motortown had its premiere at the Royal Court downstairs, and it hit the first night audience like a slap in the face. Provocative, controversial and hard to watch, Motortown asks some uncomfortable questions of the terrorism-affected society we now live in. Caroline Bishop was there…

A couple of audience members walked out of the first night of Motortown, others covered their eyes at one particular moment. The content of Simon Stephens’ new play is at some points shocking, and makes uncomfortable viewing for an audience faced with Stephens’ view on what British soldiers did and saw in Iraq, the effect it had on them, and the indifferent attitude of many people back home. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s the point.

Danny (Daniel Mays) is the boy from the Motortown, Dagenham, who fought in Basra and has now come home. Alienated from his parents, he stays with his (possibly) autistic brother Lee (Tom Fisher) and visits the raw, seedy assortment of people he left behind – his mate Tom (Steve Hansell), who is more interested in whether Danny has an ipod than his experiences in Iraq and thinks nothing of selling a gun to his slightly psychotic friend; his ex-girlfriend Marley (Daniela Denby-Ashe), who is marrying someone else and doesn’t want to know; and paedophile weapons dealer Paul (Richard Graham).

Not much is discussed about Danny’s experience of war during the first part of the play as no one responds to any references to it that he makes. But gradually the trauma of what he has seen finds an outlet. Perhaps in order to make someone else feel the pain that he does, or maybe because his experiences have pushed him beyond all boundaries, he commits a shocking act of violence against a 14-year-old girl, Jade (Ony Uhiara), and, sickeningly, takes photos of it on his phone.

Then, in an abrupt change of scene and tension we are introduced to a couple of white, middle class swingers, who went on the anti-war march in London but who are more concerned about having a threesome with Danny than what the war meant. This pair, his friends and a society driven by terrorism and violence comprise the kind of people he fought for. He feels Britain and its inhabitants have changed, and he is disgusted by it. “I fought a war for this lot” he says.

The production is sparse in its use of props, with no set to speak of. Cast members not in the current scene sit around the edges of the stage watching, giving the play a rehearsal feel, and become stage hands between scenes by moving around chairs in an angry semi-dance routine. The cast is also on hand to mop up the blood of Danny’s victim in a chillingly mundane way – brushing the violence out of the way and out of sight.

Motortown is playing at the Royal Court until 20 May.

CB