DNA comes with some big names attached – writer Dennis Kelly is currently recieving plaudits for Matilda the Musical; Hulltruck are an established theatre company with an excellent reputation; director Anthony Banks is Associate Director for the National Theatre; and ex-Eastender James Alexandrou plays a central role. And yet it never quite lives up to the expectations established by these big names.
The play tells the story of a group of teenagers dealing with the aftermath of an incident that occurs when their treatment of a peer goes too far. As news spreads of the consequences of their actions, so does the panic. Step up normally silent Phil (Alexandrou), who calmly outlines a plan to avoid blame by framing a stranger for the boy’s disappearance. The plan is enacted, and as it initially appears to have been successful, the characters each deal with their guilt differently – some flourish, while others disappear or gradually unravel. With another turn of events they are forced to consider as individuals and as a group what they are prepared to do to maintain their original lie, and whose lives they are prepared to sacrifice.
A strength of the play is that the drama remains resolutely within the realm of the teenagers – we never see the outside world of parents, teachers or other adults implicated in their actions; accurately reflecting the way groups of friends of this age can operate in their own seemingly impenetrable worlds, where everything revolves around them. The main thread of time passing between each meeting of the group is punctuated by scenes between Phil, who barely speaks, and his talkative girlfriend Leah, whose chattering never ceases despite, or perhaps because of a complete lack of interaction from Phil. However, the continued return to this relationship, always in exactly the same set up, feels more like a sketch than an evolving narrative, and while the dynamic between them is funny to begin with, it grows tiresome. The other peripheral characters are far less well developed, and at times unbelievable – one seems to genuinely delight in the fame and attention that may result from having committed murder with no justification or explanation; and another’s transformation from behaving like a slightly nervous teenager to acting like a five year old is only explained by his being ‘on medication’.
There are some fine performances, particularly by James Alexandrou as Phil and Leah Brotherhead as Leah, but it feels like some of the actors never get to grips with the rhythm of the teenagers’ language as written by Dennis Kelly. The production’s strongest suit is its visual design – the striking QR code floor and Andrzej Goulding’s digital projections are excellent, and combined with Alex Baranowski’s sound design, create the chilling tension and atmosphere which are at times lacking from the performance itself.
Reviewed for Left Lion