sat 20/07/2024

Ticking, Trafalgar Studios | reviews, news & interviews

Ticking, Trafalgar Studios

Ticking, Trafalgar Studios

Death row unlocks family secrets in a grippingly played thriller

End game: Sylvia (Niamh Cusack) and Edward (Anthony Head) visit condemned son Simon (Tom Hughes)Bronwen Sharp

There’s nothing like a death to bring a family together. In Simon’s case, that death is his own – impending execution by firing squad in an unnamed Asian country, unless he can win a reprieve from the Prime Minister, President or Pope, “one of the Ps”. Confined space, buried secrets, and a race against the clock: in his stage debut, filmmaker Paul Andrew Williams is determined to make his audience sweat.

That you certainly will (and not just because of Trafalgar Studio 2’s appropriately cramped and furnace-like environs), although Williams’ methods of applying pressure tend towards the large, blunt object. That’s partly necessity, given the self-imposed constraints of his real-time play (which he also directs) – just 85 minutes to address a lifetime’s worth of familial issues, while also paying off a nail-biting thriller. But the speed therapy frequently jars, as when Simon plays marriage counsellor-cum-interrogator or hurriedly demands his visiting parents use his death to snap out of their conformist malaise and really live.

Ticking, Trafalgar StudiosInelegant it may be, but it yields riveting results, thanks in no small part to a stirring trio of performances. Tom Hughes’s Simon (pictured right with Jackie Lam) is brattish, entitled, resentful, cruelly selfish in his determination to shift responsibility onto those who raised him, but very much a little boy lost. Throughout, Hughes’s body jerks and strains like a fish caught on the line, maintaining just enough sympathy to counter some of the nastier needling and eye-rolling adolescent melodrama. “Innocence died that night!” is one of his subtler proclamations. Yet the flashes of temper also make the accusation against him – stabbing a prostitute to death – disturbingly plausible.

Excellent, too, are Niamh Cusack’s powerfully distraught peacemaker mother, whose greatest rebellion was gate-crashing a local beauty contest aged 18, and Anthony Head, lending compelling specificity to a stereotypical repressed English authority figure whose life revolves around the Ambridge-like village cricket club. Williams focus isnt the justice systems of other nations, but how a dire situation might challenge the mores of our own.

The hypocrisy of middle-class respectability is old hat, but there is some stimulating exploration of how we form, reshape and measure ourselves against our loved ones’ identities. Is it worse for Simon to discover his parents are frauds, or exactly who he thinks they are? For Sylvia to keep believing her beloved son has been falsely accused, or that he’s actually capable of this crime? Unfortunately, Williams seems allergic to ambiguity, embracing his protagonist's binary worldview by providing answers to questions better left lingering.

More effective is the British gallows humour, with Simon complaining he hasn’t got a Sun campaign (though even Deirdre Barlow landed one), ordering a last meal of baked beans on toast, luxuriating in a Twix Gold, and regretting that he never bothered going to Alton Towers. Its a wry counterpoint to Jean Chans grubby, strictly institutional prison waiting-room, presided over by Jackie Lam’s ever-watchful guard. If not quite a rival to the family drama playing upstairs, its certainly a decent support act.


Williams’ focus isn’t the justice systems of other nations, but how a dire situation might challenge the mores of our own


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters