If you watched the BBC Two documentary The Secret History of Our Streets, or you’re just aware of British history, you’ll know the stories of the move in the 60s from slums to newly-built council estates, which catastrophically failed to solve any social problems.
The Architect, a 1996 play by David Grieg, imagines the story of an architect involved in one such project – a build ‘em high, build ‘em quick, build ‘em cheap’ endeavour, the tenants of which now call for its demolition – as a way of examining how things we attempt to build and re-build, whether structures or relationships, never succeed in eradicating the previous problems.
When Leo (the eponymous architect) insists his crumbling council estate is “perfectly structurally sound”, he is mirroring the doggedness with which he endeavours to hold together the disparate strands of his family unit. Both the appropriately named ‘Eden Court’ and his own home are paradise debased; the block of flats infested with damp and cockroaches, and his wife and children afflicted with various psychological hang-ups and neuroses.
Dom Applewhite brings his ability to create nuanced and watchable characters, displayed in his previous plays like The Pillowman, to the role. He perfectly captures the middle class, middle-aged, middle England preoccupations of Leo Black’s character, but also the endearing awkwardness of a father and husband who genuinely tries to care about those close to him. He transforms the show’s central character into a figure we can both criticise and care about.
The dynamics between the characters take time to set up, but, though the pace remains fairly steady, the audience’s interest is piqued as we learn more about the family and their ways of dealing with their various problems.
Dorothy has the unusual habit of late night hitch-hiking to wherever, Mattie engages in casual sex in public toilets, and Leo just wants to have an evening in with his wife. These scenarios are compelling, and neatly switch from one to another at critical moments, ensuring the audience remains rapt.
Difficulties arise when the second half, rather than building on the tension built up by the first act, seems to be equally slow moving, not aided by some lengthy gaps between scenes.
Occasionally, the naturalistic dialogue also seems to get the better of the cast. Words like ‘okay’ or ‘sorry’ are sometimes delivered unengagingly, which, counterintuitively, makes the piece seem less realistic. In this play, so much of what is actually being said lies in the very points that might seem the least important. The production would be even better if the actors made every word and awkward silence as vital and necessary a part of the play as a line in a Shakespearean speech.
The Architect is already a fascinating play, and could easily be even more so, the only real problems being pacing and occasional lapses in dramatic intensity. It’s definitely worth a watch, but just falls short of being essential viewing.
The Architect is on at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 7th March.