The Match Box, Frank McGuinness’s new play has had its run extended once more at the Playhouse Studio. Just what makes it so compelling?
There’s no hiding in the Playhouse Studio. It is small and enclosed, and one which must be an overwhelmingly claustrophobic space for performers not hitting the notes. Real backs to the wall stuff. For Leanne Best – playing Sal, bereaved mother to Mary, her little lamb – it’s a space she dominates, holding court before a rapt yet cowering audience. She wields a terrible power, and a truth.
The Match Box is Frank McGuinness’s intensely emotive new play. Set against the back-drop of the unsolved death of a child, caught in the crossfire of local toughs. As if extra resonance were required, one cannot help but be put in mind of the tragic 2007 death of Rhys Jones, on his way home from football practise. Single mother Sal gets the news at work. It’s a powerful, painful scene drenched in denial, and one which cements the audience’s position on the side of Sal, no matter where that takes us.
It’s funny how we apply the word star to the player in the lead role, no matter their quality, or lack thereof. In the case of Leanne Best, there can be no other word for her; she produces an incredible performance, no supporting cast to fall back on, it’s all on her shoulders, and it’s a weight she bears with thrilling strength.
There is evidence of a similar strength in Sal as she must cope not only with her loss, but the subsequent police appeal (which ushers forth an incredible few minutes from Best) and investigation, tugging not only at the emotions, but at the seams of a family being slowly devoured by grief and for a time at least, a lack of tangible resolution.
Ultimately, Mary, Sal, and her parents are failed by the community they live in and those whose job it is to police it, the killers protected by an impenetrable wall of silence. But there are suspicions and whispers, as there must be in all communities, and the finger of blame points in only one direction. Her parents, aging and frail support her in their own way, with a strange passive aggressive kind of love, her dad (whose health has suffered most) uttering fateful words about ‘rough justice’.
From here-on-in, humanity is wrested from Sal’s grasp, as we see her position move from one of grieving mother to high functioning avenging angel. It’s difficult to recall having seen anything quite like this on stage before. Affecting, authoritative, commanding; all adjectives we can ordinarily and reliably reach for in describing good acting and writing. In this case, they all fall woefully short.
The temptation to give the game away here, as we relive the details, is immense. But we’ll hold our tongues. However, we must deal with the final, shocking and devastating scene. There is such horror, madness and violence here as to be genuinely traumatising. As we sit, our eyes transfixed, we watch such a transformation as it is hard to grasp. The simmering anguish, so far kept at arm’s length, is unleashed in a final display of awesome, yet numbing power.
So complete and transporting is the moment, you want to leap to the stage and offer a shoulder to cry on, a kind word, only to think twice at the state you would be in if you were foolish enough to come within reach of Sal. When the lights finally go down, you wonder fearfully at what will be left of the person who was once Leanne Best when they come back up. Incredibly, the only evidence of what has just transpired are a few tears, wiped away with a smile by an actor so at the height of her powers, the strength of her name alone should be enough to guarantee audiences for the rest of what promises to be a fruitful career.
Put simply, Best’s portrayal of a woman wronged has to be seen to be believed, but praise must be lavished too on McGuinness and director Lia Williams. All too easy to lapse into well worn hoary cliché when dealing with the very specific psyche of Liverpool, The Match Box sidesteps any potential pitfalls with aplomb, avoiding being lazily derivative where (what feels like) countless others have failed.
Image courtesy Christian Smith