Review of The Bench by Jeff Brown at The Customs House until Saturday, September 23
The Bench by Jeff Brown at The Customs House until Saturday, September 23
“It’s basically boy meets girl,” said BBC Look North presenter Jeff Brown about his second play.
Well it is, but it’s also so much more than that.
To start with the ‘boy’ is a Premier League footballer recently transferred into an un-named north east team. And ‘the girl’ is a single mum struggling to look after her baby and her mum who is living with Motor Neurone Disease.
The footballer, Adi, is from the Congo, but was brought up in France, where he had some success in the ‘beautiful game.’ Adi is also lonely and lost, struggling for a purpose in a strange city while being paid £70,000 a week. Things aren’t helped by the fact he’s hit a poor run of form – and is on The Bench.
The mum, Vicky, is sparky, bright and totally focused on her roles as parent and carer.
The pair meet next to a park bench. Isolated and alone in a new city, Adi is desperate for conversation, but Vicky doesn’t follow football and has no idea who the man with a strange accent is.
Over the next few days a friendship develops and we learn about how tough things are for Vicky – and of Adi’s horrific past.
These two characters feel real and authentic and are beautifully played by Jason Njoroge and Hannah Marie Davis. They’re on stage for the vast majority of the play and don’t put a foot wrong. Thoroughly convincing.
Our other two main characters are Mick (Adam Donaldson), a foul-mouthed, abrasive agent who is only really interested in making as much profit out of Adi as possible, and Ange (Abigail Lawson), Vicky’s brassy and supportive best friend.
Through Mick we understand the behind-the-scenes machinations of the grubby world of football finance, while Ange – superbly played by Abigail Lawson – brings both energy and laughs.
Jeff, who has been watching and covering football for 40 years, knows the game far better than most and weaves in his knowledge – and love – of the game throughout the play.
His dialogue is great – at times very funny and others extremely moving. He explores the pressures and abuses piled on to modern-day black footballers, while also compassionately looking at how tough life is for those living on the breadline.
Jeff’s actors – the other cast members are young Zac Anders and Dan Howe – are all excellent. The imaginative set works perfectly, and the direction from Olivia Millar Ross is crisp and pacy.
The Bench is about contrasts, love and loss, and poverty and wealth. It’s also about a society that appears to value someone playing a sport more than a struggling mother and carer.
In places it’s very tender, in others it’s brutal – but it works extremely well and is an impressive piece of writing.
Back of the net, Jeff.