Infinity’s production of Matthew Lynch’s The Prisoners’ Dilemma was a captivating affair, creatively and insightfully directed by Ben Evans and Dan McKee. The thought provoking ‘moral’ of the play was evoked through a clash of characters within a fatal environment – a prison, no less, characterised by sparse, minimalistic setting. The audience were seated ‘in the round’, thus literally surrounding the action, and mimicking the prison’s walls – also alluding to the play’s suggestion that “somebody is always watching you”. Each character was ‘imprisoned’ by Guard (Rosie Solomon), who opened the play before the audience were even seated, breaking the fourth wall as she stormed past the queuing audience, prisoner in tow, with utter sass and conviction.
The first prisoner we were introduced to was Sam, endearingly portrayed by Connor Whitmore – whose cheeky cockney charm alluded to his self-proclaimed “loveable disposition”. Whitmore played this character with great skill and sensitivity, particularly Sam’s subconscious battle with bravado and intense vulnerability, highlighted by the sudden plot twist of his near-death. Sam’s questionable idolization of ‘father figure’ Johnny (Tom Sheldon) was a touching undertone to the story, as an unlikely alliance was formed between the pair. Johnny was another character who, unsurprisingly, appeared greatly affected by the prison experience Sheldon was cast perfectly in this role, as he masterfully portrayed Johnny’s transformation from ‘slick and sleazy’ to a sensitive, almost tragic figure, mourning his failing marriage – moments which were tenderly captured in the conversational, seated exchanges between Johnny and Sam, in which Sam unexpectedly ends up giving Johnny whole-hearted, sincere advice.
Furthermore, in direct opposition to Johnny’s self-elected position as ‘leader’, Katy Owens dominated and, quite literally, owned the stage as multi-millionaire businesswoman Judy – a feisty kaleidoscope of withering glances, cruel put-downs and an obvious superiority complex. Their dual battle for control was stimulated by the nature of their imprisonment: only one prisoner may leave, whilst the identity of the lone survivor was determined by four bottles (three containing poison) or the sinister alternative of a gun – containing four bullets. This Saw-like ‘experiment’ was set to test the characters’ morals, whilst simultaneously urging them to strip away their stereotypes and reveal their true selves to the audience. Fundamentally, each character acts as a catalyst for another’s self-discovery; Sam and Johnny, for example, teach each other to be honest with their feelings, whilst Judy proves herself to be all bark and no bite, through the care and compassion she demonstrates when saving Sam’s life. The near-death experience itself was a poignant, pivotal moment in the plot – the sharpened reality of his potential death was highlighted by a (red) shift in lighting, haunting musical accompaniment (credit to composer Marty Fisk) and a sudden jolt of frantic on-stage action.
In the midst of the rising turmoil, two other characters who reach an unlikely understanding are Candice, convincingly played by Catherine Roberts, and Euan Codrington’s coarse, piteous portrayal of ‘homeless’ Barney. This case of ‘princess meets pauper’ provokes Roberts, as an actress, to effectively portray her character’s evolution throughout the play; she enters as a whiny, self-righteous caricature of the stereotypical spoiled brat, but progresses to a state somewhere between understanding and acceptance for ‘the lowest of the low’. Codrington’s transition, however, from the epitome of poor to the mastermind behind the entire warped scenario was both a sudden physical and vocal transformation – credit to his impressive acting ability. Whether this was perhaps too sudden is questionable, yet the nature of this plot twist was certainly both unpredictable and engaging for the audience.
To conclude, this interpretation of The Prisoners’ Dilemma was a theatrically minimalistic affair, with maximum impact. The play’s thought-provoking critique of society and its stereotypes was enhanced by the convincing and charismatic combination of all six actors, who each individually showcased their impressive acting talent. Ben Evans and Dan McKee should be proud of themselves, their cast and their crew – for this production was one of the most accomplished I’ve seen in a long time.