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Winterlong review

Catherine May is amazed and confused at the Royal Exchange

Published on February 4th 2011.

Winterlong review

Along with three others, Andrew Sheridan won the Bruntwood prize for playwriting in the inaugural 2008 competition. His debut play Winterlong received critical acclaim and, until February 19th, it is being performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre ahead of a move down to London.

Using just five actors, the story focuses on the childhood of Oscar, a boy seemingly neither loved nor wanted by anybody, and the family that failed to offer him that love. His parents left him with his grandparents at the age of four and as he ages he becomes more than aware of his grandfather’s hatred of him. Despite claims of his one-hundred friends, Oscar is a textbook loner with his social awkwardness captured perfectly by Harry McEntire.

The plot is dark and the script sometimes challenging for the audience. Casual swearing makes up a large proportion of conversations and nudity comes as a shock as the play progresses. With graphic discussions of dying frequent, it’s the splattering of light entertainment in the dialogue that sometimes proves to be the cleverest. “Everybody hates Blackpool, even the sea doesn’t want to be here,” broke the stunned silence with a moment of laughter before smiles were dropped for bemused expressions.

Manchester audiences will appreciate the locality of the production. At the age of ten, Oscar rejoices in supporting United and berates City as being ‘shit’. Sheridan himself lives in the city and is proud to have the play premiering in what he refers to as ‘the best theatre in the country’.

Whilst the acting is strong throughout, the relationships between the characters are broken from the start. And it’s with this lack of structure that confusion arises.

Scenes change quickly and so do the actors. Laurence Mitchell takes on three roles and despite giving each their own characteristics, the need for his two smaller parts is debatable. He first appears as Malcolm, an over-eager gay man who propositions John, Oscar’s grandfather (Paul Copley), and speaks quickly but disjointedly about everything and anything. He’s just been to a funeral. He’s got a tortoise in a box. He wanted a black box but couldn’t find one because black cardboard boxes aren’t common…

In the scene, John remains calm until asked to drop his trousers, which he does, only to later back away into the night. The incident is never again referred to and Malcolm never reappears, only for Mitchell to return in the role of Philip, whose suggestive behaviour towards Oscar is similarly forward. The scenes are poignant and well-acted, but I can’t help but feel they overcomplicated the sub-plots.

It was this complexity of the script that I really struggled with. The swift changes in location and time threw me and I left the theatre struggling to understand what exactly I had just seen.

Whilst I’m still left questioning the intricacies of the plot, I’m doubtless that the play was impressive. The fact those two hours of entertainment came from the head of a first-time scriptwriter heightened my enthusiasm for the performance and it’s definitely worth buying a ticket - even if you are left in a complete state of confusion.

Now can someone please explain to me what on earth just happened?

Winterlong was the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition Winner 2008. It’s at the Royal Exchange until 19 February. Box Office 0161 833 9833. www.royalexchange.co.uk

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