When the Iraq War began in 2003, I was dreaming of a career in Journalism, so it’s no surprise that new play For the Sake of Argument, now running at London’s Bridewell Theatre, immediately appealed to me. Written and directed by Harry Darell, For the Sake of Argument is inspired by a real-life incident involving the late Christopher Hitchens and explores the power of words. Eleanor Hickcock (Ashleigh Cole) is a passionate, argumentative journalist and a firm supporter of both Tony Blair and the Iraq War. When she’s approached by grieving mother Maria Bradley (Paula Cassina), she learns that her words inspired Maria’s son Mark (Georgie Farmer) to enlist and consequently die for his country. When she’s invited to the Bradley’s family home, Eleanor has to confront a family in mourning and explain her actions.
For the Sake of Argument is certainly an interesting and topical play, especially given some of the criticism the media has faced in more recent times over its coverage of Brexit, not to mention terrorism. But while there are some good ideas here, they’re not fully explored and the play takes a long time to develop. The first act attempts to introduce a lot of characters, many of whom are irrelevant to the story. We see Eleanor at her local pub, The Cock Tavern in Euston, run by the foul-mouthed Nelson (Greg Snowden), debating with her friends over the likes of Winston Churchill, Ken Livingstone, and Tony Blair. Although some interesting points are made, this is done solely to give the audience an insight into Eleanor’s support for Tony Blair and the rest, sadly, brings nothing to the story. Despite the theme of the play focusing on words, the first act in particular features too much talking. It’s not until Mark’s mother shows up again and introduces herself to Eleanor that the play kicks up a notch, and while the second act is a noticeable improvement as the journalist faces the family in mourning, the play still feels too long. With an advertised running time of two hours (almost two and a half when it overran on press night) the production would benefit from some tight editing, particularly during the first act.
The cast all do well with the material, but the trouble is that it’s hard to connect with most of the characters when the majority of them are so self-obsessed and pretentious. Greg Snowden is amusing at first as pub landlord Nelson, but after a while his character is more of an annoyance as the obscenities get repetitive and become too much. Cleaner Liz also provides comic relief, and actress Ella May is a breath of fresh air, although there is no real purpose to the character and in some ways the humour distracts from the main aim of the show. It also feels somewhat stereotypical to have the working class characters seemingly lacking intelligence compared to their middle class counterparts. Ashleigh Cole is impressive as Eleanor, convincing as the journalist wrapped up in her convictions; while Georgie Farmer also gives a strong performance as Mark. But it’s Matt Weyland and Paula Cassina who really convince as grieving Mark’s grieving parents looking for answers.
Despite some flaws, there are some clever additions to the play. Set designer Amy Watts ensures that the Iraq War is never far from our thoughts; the stage covered in sand throughout the show as a reminder. Meanwhile Mark’s monologues are a particularly nice touch to the production as they give the audience an insight into his thoughts. For the Sake of Argument is certainly a thought-provoking production with bags of potential. It raises some interesting questions, particularly for those interested in writing and journalism but unfortunately the play falls short of the mark, and perhaps in future dividing the writing and directing responsibilities could benefit the piece. With some further character development, editing, and tighter focus on the central players, this could be a far more impactful production.
For the Sake of Argument is playing at the Bridewell Theatre until 8 February.
Photo credit: Charles Flint