Back Down by Polarbear – Roundhouse Last Word Festival
– reviewed by Lettie McKie –
Back Down is the first play from spoken word artist Steven Camden (Polarbear). Presented by Birmingham Rep Theatre Company this show premiered at the Rep in February and has since toured arts and community venues across the country. Its London debut has been timed perfectly to launch Roundhouse’s Last Word Festival of spoken word which runs 16th-31st May.
The story follows the trio of old friends Luke (Lawrence Walker), Zia (Waleed Akhtar) and Tommy (Sam Cole) as they embark on a trip to climb Mount Snowden before Luke leaves Birmingham to go to university with his girlfriend. The trip marks the end of their years growing up in Birmingham together, but it descends into a bit of disaster through bad planning and bitter arguments between the friends who are each struggling with the different choices they have to make about their future.
Listen, you might hear something.
Two of the play’s young stars hadn’t done that much acting before their roles in Back Down, but it’s a testament to their success that all of the performances are exceedingly professional. But the real strength of the piece lies in Polarbear’s writing, bearing his trademark descriptive storytelling, detailed characterisation and hilarious comic punchlines spliced in at the most poignant of moments.
The beauty of Polarbear’s work here is that it isn’t instantly recognisable as spoken word. There’s no obvious assonance, bobbing rhythms or metre but it’s not straight prose either. The main difference is that the main bulk of the action is described to the audience in a fusion of theatre and storytelling, the actors slipping between dialogue and direct address. It’s a subtle but important touch, as the audience is asked to listen carefully as huge swathes of the story come to life in their imaginations.
Back Down is an unpretentious tale of three best friends on the edge of adulthood. Their hapless attempts to climb Mount Snowden are impeded by hangovers, inappropriate footwear, injuries and simmering tensions that eventually bubble up into a few angry confrontations.
The story is uplifting and accurate to the life experiences of many young people leaving home for the first time but does occasionally feel it lacks a real sense of drama; any danger they are in is quickly averted.
That said, the real joy of the piece is in getting to know the characters and, by doing so, joining them on their emotional journey; goofily enthusiastic Zia who is the unlikely leader of the expedition; rebellious Tommy who is struggling with the fact that Luke will be leaving for a new life with his girlfriend (Layla) in a few days; good looking and ambitious Luke torn between his two worlds: Tommy and the past, Layla and the future.
The success of the piece relies on great chemistry between the three actors, and you could tell the audience were rooting for them even though the play, just like real adult life, offers no guarantee that they will remain lifelong friends or succeed in their ambitions. The show builds to a hilarious, drug-fuelled romp around the campfire, but as dawn brings their comedown and a drive back to reality all three boys have to face the future.
There is a huge range of spoken word performances included in Last Word but Polarbear’s play is unique amongst the line-up for being written by somebody who is not also performing in it. This play, just like Kate Tempest’s Wasted, is a game-changer for the genre, an exciting and rare example of how spoken word artists can translate their words to other voices, allowing their characters to come to life without the need for their direct intervention.
Sabotage Star Rating: ****
Brilliantly written and acted – only slightly let down by a less-than-brilliant storyline.
Back Down is at The Roundhouse until Sunday 24 May. Click here to book.