Back Down is the debut play by Steven Camden aka Polarbear. He is one of the most respected spoken word artists in the UK, and he’s from Birmingham. The story follows three Brummie boys, Luke, Tommy and Zia, on their final adventure which results in a rain-sodden reality check on a Welsh mountain. Luke is leaving for Leeds University after this weekend and it’s clear the two boys are going to miss him. Described by The Times as “like The Inbetweeners, but sweeter”, the play really does do an excellent job of capturing the mind of three typical teenage boys in a way that is charming and true to life.
I’d never experienced the work of Steven Camden in any form and, naturally as a Creative Writing student, I was intrigued to find out more about his spoken word performances. So, before going to see Back Down I watched several of Camden’s spoken word performances. His sharp and witty sense of the adolescent mind in performances such as ‘Jessica’ and the humorous moments we all experience (and still are experiencing) as teenagers and young adults work their way into Back Down.
As a student, the story of leaving home for university and all the mixed emotions that come with it really resonated with me. However, while the play would certainly make a connection with any male teenager, or any student for that matter, I think that everyone can appreciate its exploration of the universal experience of friendship. As proof, by some bizarre coincidence I was the youngest member of the audience and people around me were more than tickled by the idea of getting high, transgressing private land and just generally getting into quite a bit of trouble. Because of Camden’s savvy ability with the spoken word, these moments were relatable to anyone because they were about what it means to have a friend and how we maintain those friendships. When asked by the Birmingham Rep what he hoped the audience would take from the play, Camden nicely summarises my point: to feel “lucky for the friends that they have.”
The play was performed in The DOOR at the Rep. This was my first visit to the Rep, and I’m not sure what prior expectations I had, but this experience didn’t fit them. It was a kind of black box theatre, only with the audience raised above the actors. The set design by Olly Shapley maintained an unadorned performance space; a ladder, a ramp and three small boxes were all that the three boys had to aid their visual performance. When I walked into the stage area the three actors were already in character, and having a quick kick about before the show. At first I didn’t like this idea; combined with the minimalistic space I suddenly couldn’t get the idea of an A-level exam piece out of my head. But in retrospect the space was extremely flexible and the constant movement was a way to stimulate the audience and build tension with what is an essentially very mundane and everyday story line.
Overall it was a nice exploration of a coming-of-age story and despite a few mistakes, the actors were very entertaining. My only critique is to do with the plot. I feel the stakes could have been upped slightly by Camden. I am in no way critical about the sentimental message on friendship; however, I didn’t leave the theatre learning something, or even with a refreshed perspective. In a way it just confirmed a feeling I was already aware of (and as a student you practically watch your exact experience of leaving for university, except there was no mountain in my case). This leaves you with that sense of “so what actually happened”. But that’s just me. Packed with tons of laughs and a lot of Brummie pride, this piece is still well worth a watch.
You can catch Back Down at the REP Birmingham until 7th March.