ELLA BURNS

Content note: this article contains discussion of rape and the Hillsborough disaster.

Jade Franks production of Luke Barnes’ Bottleneck is the best piece of student theatre I have ever been fortunate enough to see. From Emily Senior and Ester Mcpherson’s lighting design and operation to Franks acting, the show is faultless from start to finish.

Bottleneck is a play set around the tragedy of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 lives were lost as as a result of police errors, poor training, and a delayed police response among other police and venue related factors. However, for the most part the play precedes the events of the 15th April match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, instead focussing in on the life of a 14 (soon to be 15) year old boy called Greg, taking us through all of the intricacies of his life as a normal teenage boy in Liverpool in the late ‘80s, desperate to see his favourite players at the next Liverpool match. 

From the moment Franks steps on stage as Greg, lip-syncing along to a classic tune that I won’t spoil for you here, she embodies him. High energy, humorous, cheeky and straightforward, Franks presents us with more than a character; she presents us with a mate, who starts off talking to the audience like mates do, lamenting over being grounded because of quaver-fannied Sarah Jane, and raving about his favourite footie team: Liverpool. However, Franks does not just play one character, she plays all of them through the eyes of Greg. Using the entire (and I mean entire) stage Franks’ acting is dynamic, multi-dimensional and captivating, her tone and volume varied, impossible to tune out of. She creates characters we can see as real. Greg’s dad is an authoritative figure complete with John McLane-esque muzzie; Greg’s best friend Tom a queer-coded footballer surrounded by rumours about his sexuality; and, Greg, well Greg could be your Dad aged fourteen, or a late ‘80s version of a boy in your class at school, he’s unabashedly human, wonderful, and flawed, and that is part of Franks’ talent. 

Although Franks excellently plays into the humour, both of Barnes’ writing, and in more self-aware ways relating specifically to the production at hand, she also fully leans into the deeper, quieter parts of the script, providing a heartbreaking portrayal of the confusion felt by Greg following his rape at school and the conversation he has afterwards with Tom. She’s not afraid to be quietly powerful, emphasising just how good of an actress she really is. 

“The audience are never able to forget why they’re there, what happens at the end of the play, and the ripples of the disaster that are still felt together across Liverpool”

The main plot-line of Bottleneck is Greg attempting to acquire the money necessary to go see Liverpool play on his birthday. Whether that is by sweeping the floor of the barber’s or stealing and selling The Sun – the sad irony of which should not escape you given the paper’s abhorrent response to the Hillsborough disaster – Greg is desperate to attain those tickets. However, despite this often light-hearted and amusing narrative we cannot forget what this play is named after. Every scene change is accompanied by red stage lighting and a moving voice-over on Hillsborough, spoken by one of Franks’ Dad’s friends; the audience are never able to forget why they’re there, what happens at the end of the play, and the ripples of the disaster that are still felt together across Liverpool, and football at large, largely due to the terrible reaction of Thatcher’s government at the time, albeit reportedly based on police misinformation

It is often in the lighting and sound design of this production that we really feel the weight of emotions Franks is portraying, every change of pace is accompanied by a subtle shift in lighting, every poignant scene accompanied by equally poignant technical moments. The technical team on this production really make an already unbelievably good piece shine; combined with Franks acting and interpretation of the script the technical team mark Bottleneck out as something truly special, the likes of which I had never scene on a Cambridge stage before.


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Finally, the namesake scene of Bottleneck is done exceptionally well, sensitive and saturated by fear, horror, and grief. The team do not shy away from the events which occurred on 15 April, 1989, instead they playing them out touchingly and respectfully. We are shown the immediate mental aftermath of the disaster, along with the anguish caused by the delayed response of the police. In this scene the entire cast and crew of Bottleneck comes together through their art in tribute to the victims of Hillsborough, accompanied by memorial items borrowed from Franks’ Dad’s friend, far too powerfully for me to eloquently summarise in a review.

Bottleneck is the best piece of theatre I have ever seen in Cambridge. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. In the 30th year since the Hillsborough disaster, this production brings to Cambridge the impact and tragedy of the event in a way that has to be seen. I urge you, if you are going to see one production this week, this month, this term, make it this one.

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