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Theatre Review (London): Dig by J.D. Smith and No More, Salvator? by Michael Hart at the Old Red Lion

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A one-act play is a tricky thing. You need to present the characters, create scenarios for them, then neatly roll it up, all within something less than an hour.

You need to grab people fast, but make them feel like they are getting something meaty and substantial, with something to talk about after the show.

The two plays that have just premiered together at the Old Red Lion in Islington take two different approaches, although both are centred around the interaction of two characters.

The first, Dig, sees an incompetent, nervous, weak hitman try to force his planned victim to dig his own grave. But his victim isn't playing ball.

It's hardly an original scenario, and it really doesn't quite work. The behaviour of the nervous hitman is logical enough, but that of his victim-to-be makes little sense. The explanation he gives to the audience—I really couldn't tell if we were supposed to believe it, I certainly didn't—just doesn't hold together.

My companion said that the acting failed the script, while I thought the script didn't give the actors a chance; perhaps the former view was backed by the fact that when a third character, the mafia boss (Victor Perez), appeared on the scene, some real sense of menace and power was injected.

It wasn't awful—it was just a cliched scenario played out with a too-neat—just-like-they-teach-in-drama-school—twist at the end. Perhaps there's a hint here about the spoiling of the American dream as the nation tumbles economically—a bid for something deeper—but it never really grips.

The second half of the bill, No More, Salvator?, is a very different proposition. By the Scottish playwright Michael Haart, it's a light-hearted comedy, and we already "know" one of the characters, the Mona Lisa (Belinda Wylie), who comes to life to converse with the "late Renaissance" painter Salvator Rosa, whose two Louvre paintings hang beside her and are overshadowed by her fame.

They're like an old married couple bickering and ranting at each other, the humour coming from some rather good lines ("the only reason you should be famous is you're the world's first Goth"), from the incongruity of the Mona Lisa speaking in 21st-century casual slang, and from some dashes of brilliant comic timing (I particularly enjoyed the way Mona adopts "her smile" while walking through her picture frame).

It's not a weighty piece; there's no message here (and sometimes the exposition is a little overdone), but it's 45 minutes I don't at all regret spending on light entertainment. And Stefan D’Bart as the petulant, juvenile artist is much better cast than he is as the hitman in the first play. 

Online booking at the Old Red Lion. Showing until June 26.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.