Promises Promises–An overdue, and overlong, response

Promises.  They are important in life, aren’t they?  After all, one of the major ways we judge people is how they follow their own ‘word of honour’, and much of society is based on people abiding by certain laws, which really are promises of such.

And take my work as a critic.  A theatre company gives me a ticket and I promise to write a response.  No one stands over me as I type out my thoughts and opinions.  It is expected of me (though if I don’t, the theatre would certainly be within their right of refusing me my next request).  And I need to be honest about my thoughts, saying what worked and didn’t, all while being impartial and without giving too much away.  I signed no contract saying I would do this, but it is a ‘promise’ that I gladly accept.

Why have I written the above?  Because I find that Random Accomplice’s production of Promises Promises has weighed heavily on me.  I have already broken one promise (I have elected to wait over a fortnight before chiming in on my thoughts), and in order for me to write a meaningful response, I must break a second: I need to reveal more than I should.

So, those looking for a quick ‘should I go or not’, my opinion is: yes, do go.  And if you want to read different responses to make a decision, read Joyce McMillan’s positive review and Shona Craven’s critical response, amongst others.  But unless you have already seen this production, or unless you are absolutely certain that you are not going to go, please stop reading NOW.

Because, unlike most productions, I am completely unable to remove my outside life from my role as a critic on this, and I must address the big twists at the end of the story.

Anyone who knows me knows that I also work in education.  True, the vast majority of my work is in FE, but I have worked with plenty of youths, so I know the age bracket that is being discussed, and I have worked extensively in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), so I know full well what it is like working with people from differing cultures (heck, as an American in the UK, I’m dealing with differing cultures all the time).

So it is the teacher inside of me that initially enjoyed this.  There are wonderful insights into the life and function of education, insights that I not only recognise but live.  And any teacher-figure that takes it upon themselves to ‘fight the power’ is going to gain my immediate sympathy and support.  But anyone who works with students from other cultures will quickly see the faults in the way culture is treated here.  There is a pool of potential drama when it comes to foreign students, but this play chooses to wade into shallow stereotypical waters.

And let’s not kid ourselves; the crux of this production demands a few leaps of faith that some will have trouble taking.  Promises Promises is not about a woman with old-fashioned ideals forced to deal with multiculturalism, nor is it really about the old guard verses what Oscar Wilde called ‘modern mania’.  In a way, Joanna Tope’s character is insignificant, more of a dramatic cog than a defined character.  Her job is to react, not to discover or think, and her final act of rebellion is not a triumph of character or even a calculated response.

Her function is primarily to enable an elaborate revenge fantasy against the cruel practice of female circumcision.

This is where the play gets lost.  Up until that final act of violence (justified in the minds of the audience or not), Promises Promises is a character-driven play that is filled with very interesting ideas.  It has great moments that don’t gel together, but they are each fun and well handled.  It also has some improbable twists.  Yes, the girl’s shock confession is well handled, but I didn’t believe it would happen as such for a second, nor did I believe that any school management, no matter how desperate they were to appear open and accepting, would allow the exorcism to take place.

That’s my biggest problem with Promises Promises.  The production feels like it is different plays that have been stitched together with seams that are not only visible but crooked, badly stitched and don’t match.  There are some great ideas, ideas that should be openly examined in theatre, but none of them feel like they are given the complete weight that they are due, resulting in a production that is filled with many strong parts but a whole that is lacking in much substance.  It is reactionary theatre, and much of it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny when looked at past the limelight of the stage.

That isn’t to say that I disliked it; I actually really enjoyed the production.  I thought that Jonny McKnight’s direction was very creative and balanced, and I rather enjoyed the design concepts (even the lighting, which some found distracting but I found clever—though some concepts did suffer from overkill).  It also contains one of the best performances I’ve seen this season.  Joanna Tope is simply fantastic, balancing drama and humour effortlessly and making a reactionary character into an interesting human.

But, to wade in the mire of clichés, Promises Promises doesn’t live up to its promise, in either execution or in its marketed image.  It’s filled with great aspects, but playwright Douglas Maxwell isn’t able to effectively juggle all of the themes and ideas he presents.  Each aspect is worthy of a full-length production, but because there is so much ground covered, nothing feels like it is satisfactorily handled, even if it is filled to the brim with zingers and humorous anecdotes.

Because of this, Promises Promises misses out on greatness.  I rather liked it as a production, and I even admire Maxwell for tackling subjects that many would consider taboo, but it feels like it completely misses its mark in its endgame, resulting in a production that is enjoyable in its moment but fails to spark the debate that it should inspire afterwards.

Touring Scotland and London.  For details, check Random Accomplice’s website.

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