“Red Bud makes the pressure better: it’s the excitement”
Slotting in upstairs at the Royal Court, Red Bud is a play by upcoming American writer Brett Neveu. Five friends make their annual trip to a motorcycle championship in southern Michigan but more than twenty years down the line, the attraction is beginning to wear thin, middle-aged concerns are taking over from high school dreams and not even copious quantities of alcohol and dope can paper over the cracks that have developed in their friendship. This is a review of a preview performance.
Initially full of the forced bonhomie, banalities and those easy recollections of the past that are the fallback of people who have drifted apart, the paper-thin veneer of this camaraderie is severely challenged by the introduction of a raft of drinking games from their youth which quickly darkens the mood as tensions rise to the fore, brutal truths are revealed and frustrations worked out as the evening degenerates into bitterness and violence. It is very well done starting off with an amusingly effective stunt and playing out the fast-unravelling scenario resulting in some convincing fight sequences and great use of fake blood given how exposed the actors are in this set-up.
Practically unrecognisable from his Scott Neal-seducing days on The Bill, Hywel Simons is most effective as the unemployed Jason whose fervent enthusiasm for the trip can’t mask the fact there’s little else in his life that is working for him and I liked Trevor White’s Bill, ostensibly the most sensible of the group with his steady job as a fireman but acting out in his own way dating nineteen-year-old girls. But it is Peter McDonald’s alpha male that demands the attention with a fierce performance of shocking intensity and controlled fury which goes about as dark as anything I’ve seen this year, especially when contrasted with Lisa Palfrey’s assured turn as his seven months pregnant wife Jen. He is genuinely menacing as the disaffected Greg, terrified at the prospect of fatherhood and seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction: he can also put away a huge amount of liquid as he ends drinking so much, I certainly wouldn’t want to be up against him in a drinking challenge!
The space upstairs has been reconfigured into the round, the floor fully turfed, a pick-up truck in the corner, tents scattered around and the makings of a campfire in the middle. It’s an effective design from Tom Hadley although they may have overdone it slightly on the aroma; the grass smell as you walk in is almost enough to give you hay fever! Jon Clark’s naturalistic lighting matches the darkening tone of the play well and I loved the attention to detail with the Wal-Mart shopping bags and genuine US groceries.
Neveu’s play doesn’t have anything particularly new to say, the frustrations of middle age and dashed expectations have been well explored by many others but there’s something about the timing of Red Bud which lends its disillusionment with today’s society a deeper resonance. His dialogue is well crafted and given great voice by a strong ensemble and given its short running time, it is remarkable how the production manages to whip up such tense emotion: I don’t think I actually breathed during the final 10 minutes!