A Mirror (West End) ★★★

The posters for Sam Holcroft’s A Mirror proclaim “This Play Is A Lie”. The Recs plunges into this play within a play within…

Arriving at the Trafalgar Theatre, you are confronted by a sight that may make you question if you are in the right place. Rather than the theatre auditorium you would have been expecting, designer Max Jones has transformed the venue into the setting for a high-end wedding. According to the order of service left on your seat, you have been invited to celebrate the wedding of Leyla and Joel. And duly, the wedding of two young people begins…

Images by Marc Brenner

Except this is not a wedding as we soon discover when the attending government officer checks their documentation, and leaves. A Mirror is set in an unspecified totalitarian state where art is robustly censored. Theses performative nuptials are revealed as a front created to allow rehearsals of an unlicensed play whose subversive material would fall foul of the State censors.

Adem (Samuel Adewunmi) is a young car mechanic, who has written The Ninth Floor, a verbatim play that uses his neighbours’ conversations about their life in grim high-rise flats. Mr Čelik (Jonny Lee Miller), a director of the Ministry of Culture, attempts to mentor the aspiring playwright by steering him away unflinching depictions of impoverished social conditions.

As the play progresses, writer Sam Holcroft offers scenes where Adem, Čelik and his new Ministry assistant Mei (Tanya Reynolds) do readthroughs of the young playwright’s latest attempts – one of which involves a word-perfect script recounting their first meeting at the Ministry. 

Watching these plays within plays, stories within stories, even characters playing characters, Holcroft’s script is like Pirandello with a Matryoshka doll fixation! While the overarching framework evokes an Orwellian oppressiveness, there is a surprising amount of laugh out loud comedy in A Mirror. Tanya Reynolds’ nervy, awkward assistant is a masterclass in delivering humour without resorting to caricature. Playing a poor sight-reader, her phrasing when playing a prostitute in Adem’s script is nothing short of hilarious. Miller is equally adept at making the preening, pontificating Čelik a manic figure of fun in places without ever losing the character’s underlying sense of threat. Adewunmi’s wide-eyed naivety offers the perfect straight-man foil to the proceedings. 

Whilst the text of A Mirror, with its reveals and volte-faces, is slippery enough to keep you on your toes, it does serve to distance you from the characters. Never quite knowing or trusting whether to invest in a set of characters, over time they tend towards ciphers for the playwright’s thoughts on art, censorship and playwriting.

A Mirror muses over topics such as creativity and censorship, authorial intention, the power of storytelling, the role of theatre and so on. Occasionally, Holcroft strikes gold. A discussion on the power to be able to change things provokes the statement “there are no pure things on this Earth” with subsequent assertion “compromise is not corruption” sounding as if it could come straight from a Keir Starmer shadow cabinet meeting. 

But frustratingly, too much feels toothless where it should have bite. The nebulosity of the authoritarian regime dilutes its threat. Similarly, the Holcroft’s range of targets is so broad brush that it blunts whatever polemic she intends.

While the many layers of storytelling entertainingly convey the levels of artifice and indeed authorial choices by playwrights, A Mirror, on reflection, remains a cerebral thing rather than a work that compels you to storm the barricades in defence of raw artistic expression. One character sardonically concludes “Theatre audiences don’t want a revolution. They want a gin and tonic”. This play is a lie if it believes it will change that. 

Exemplary performances weighed down by the script’s ever-decreasing circles ★★★

A Mirror Tickets

A Mirror runs at Trafalgar Theatre until 20 April 2024

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