Theatre Review: ‘The Knocky’
Rocked by poverty and despair
‘The Knocky’, by Michael Wynne (Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court)
Michael Wynne—a young graduate in politics—comes from Birkenhead, and his first play The Knocky is set in a council estate in his home town. Tommy Kelly and his two older children are out of work; another child, traumatised by a personal assault, remains forever indoors; but mother and young son, Stephen—two wonderful performances—remain optimistic, dreaming their dreams.
In many ways Wynne presents us with a vivid and authentic slice of life. The plight of the Kellys, and the community (sic) of which they are a part, must be mirrored hundreds of times across the country. Rocked by poverty and despair theft is commonplace, as victims steal from one another in an attempt to clear their debts. Young Stephen witnesses his elder brother stealing the family’s video and is torn. Should he say nothing out of loyalty or tell his parents?
So far so good but sadly there is a downside. Wynne’s play is full of scouse humour, but too frequently we seem to be laughing at the characters rather than with them. Wynne seems to be inviting us to patronise the Kellys rather than to sympathise with them. And the introduction of Mary, mother’s outrageous sister, further undermines our sympathy. In his desire for laughs Wynne has Mary remove her bra and flaunt her breasts in front of a supposed peeping Tom peering from an off-stage window. And when her victim has a heart attack and dies before the arrival of an ambulance, Mary affects not a jot of concern. Mary is a monster—the family of which she is a part is guilty by association—and sympathy is transformed into circumspection.
Perhaps next time Wynne will be strong enough to resist cheap laughs if the price is the integrity of his characters and the honesty of their predicament. Perhaps, too. he will look beyond descriptions of unemployment and poverty, and the feelings and actions which these induce—good though he is at dealing with these things. What, in part, marks out the successful playwright is the capacity for analysis as well as description. Wynne shows us folk ground down by unemployment and despair, and he seems to be sympathetic. But he appears unable to offer any explanation for their situation, or to suggest any alternatives. Presumably degrees in politics at London University don’t offer insights into the nature of capitalist economics?