As I was heading to the Royal Exchange Theatre studio in Manchester (where I watched my first play ever, as a nine-year-old) I kept thinking about the subject matter of Brilliant Adventures.

The time machine. How on earth would they manage to recreate a convincing time machine? Would it be all silver and sleek? Would it be like something from Back To The Future, one of my favourite films during my young teenage years?

Erm, no.

It was a rather rickety looking cardboard box with a red stop button and what appeared to be a calculator on the outside. I didn’t really notice it at first, sat there benignly stage left. At the front, the red button was the kind of button you see on heavy duty factory machinery or perhaps in gyms on treadmills. It seemed to be empty inside.

However, I didn’t have a problem with the time machine as the characters made the implausible seem real and that was the key to the success of the writing.

Alistair McDowall’s play Brilliant Adventures won a Bruntwood Prize in 2011 for playwriting and is now enjoying its premiere in a co-production between the Manchester theatre and the Live Theatre in Newcastle.

I can see why. The writing and characterisation is absolutely top notch and McDowall is clearly a great talent who’s worth watching out for.

But in the studio at the Royal Exchange I felt overwhelmingly claustrophobic. The subject matter is harrowing and unfettered. The funny moments are there – but are few and far between. Unfortunately, there was a member of the audience who laughed so uproariously at every comedic moment that it became very distracting. This can often be an issue if you are enthralled in the play and suddenly your concentration is broken by loud laughter. The subtext seems simple – I am at the theatre and I’m here to be entertained. It doesn’t matter what drama is being played out in front of me, I’m here to laugh. This happened during a particularly harrowing moment in a Pinter play, once.

The effect is not dissimilar to overheard loud mobile phone conversations on trains or music played without earphones.

Brilliant AdventuresThe play tells the story of a teenage scientific genius, who has a stutter and lives on a grim council estate in Middlesbrough. His older brother, Rob, has been his main carer, but is a drug dealer who literally hoiks his father around on a lead.

This, I found rather troubling. I could see why McDowall had done it as it fitted with the plot, that it was the only way that Rob could keep control of his errant father who had let them both down when they were younger. Yet it led to me asking more questions. Why wouldn’t anyone question this? Has society really broken down so much that the spectacle of a man being led around with a chain round his neck doesn’t prompt debate?

I also felt nauseous with the scene where the father dropped his trousers and injected heroin into his groin. It was too much for me and the length of the scene made it seem almost gratuitous.

That said, I do think that the time machine worked well. There were some great moments – such as when Rob rang NASA. Laurence Mitchell was a charmingly sinister Ben, a man who superficially appears pleasant, but is in fact deeply sinister and controlling.

Robert Lonsdale was great as Luke and I thought Joseph Arkley was convincing as his no-mark brother. Lee Armstrong as Luke (in the future) was also worthy of a mention for his performance. I can’t say too much more without giving the plot away.

The set was depressingly familiar. One innovative thing about the play is that the programme also contains the script, which I thought was a brilliant touch as you can re-read it and wonder at the brilliance of McDowall’s writing and plotting. Overall, I found it uneasy viewing but it got me thinking.

Review by Helen Carter


Royal Exchange © Matthew J Graham, 2013 (2)

The Royal Exchange by Matthew Graham

What: Brilliant Adventures

Where: The Royal Exchange Theatre Studio, Manchester

When: until May 25, 2013

More info