Review: Mouthpiece, Soho Theatre

Mouthpiece originally premiered last year at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and now arrives at London’s Soho Theatre for a limited run. Written by Kieran Hurley, the play is a clever and powerful commentary on the theatre world itself in terms of artistic responsibility and the representation of social classes within the arts.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a 46-year-old frustrated playwright who lives with her alcoholic mother after a failed attempt at making the big time. Deciding that she’s had enough of her current situation, she takes herself up to Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, where unemployed 17-year-old Declan (Lorn Macdonald) pulls her back from the edge and saves her life. The two form an unlikely friendship and after Libby discovers that Declan uses art to try and escape his turbulent and abusive home life, she introduces him to galleries and the theatre. As she gets to know Declan, Libby is inspired by his story and puts pen to paper, driving a wedge between them in the process. What follows is a 90-minute masterpiece which asks the question over who has the right to tell someone’s story.

Directed by Orla O’Loughlin, Mouthpiece is a gripping two-hander, with the two actors working well together to create a believable, if at times uneasy friendship between the characters. There are moments when the play breaks from the action and Libby takes a seat and provides a commentary on the rules for effective storytelling, as though she’s presenting a lecture to the audience. These additions help to drive the plot along and become more ominous as the play continues, with a warning to the audience at the midpoint that if things are going well, they won’t necessarily stay that way forever – a sign of things to come. At the back of Kai Fischer’s framed set, stage directions are projected onto the screen, setting the scene for both Mouthpiece itself and later Libby’s own play.

Neve McIntosh is utterly convincing as Libby, who initially encourages Declan and takes him under her wing, but then has to make a choice between their friendship and her career. Its when their friendship comes under strain and Libby focuses on herself that she really comes into her own. Macdonald meanwhile is the star of the show, delivering cracking one-liners with impeccable comic timing, while his facial expressions are just as brilliant and powerful as his spoken word. He also shows a more vulnerable side to Declan, particularly when talking about his younger sister Siân (that’s Siân, not Shan), proving that beneath that tough exterior he’s loving and fragile.

Kieran Hurley is a master of misdirection, and he’s written an essential and powerful play with an unforgettable ending. Not only does it question whether theatremakers want to help people or simply exploit them, it also discusses whether the arts really are open to all social classes. “It’s just someone telt me these places like this were free,” Declan tells a box office attendant at the Traverse Theatre, who tells him there’s a cost for his ticket. “…cause they’re for everyone.” Hurley’s compelling writing, combined with standout performances and strong direction make for a captivating, witty and thought-provoking production which needs to be seen.

Mouthpiece is playing at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 4 May.

Photo credit: Roberto Riccuiti

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