Occasionally, you can watch a play in a local fringe venue that leaves you astounded. Danny Clifford‘s new play, Unbreakable, is one of these. Lauded as one of the most anticipated shows of the GM Fringe festival, the show was sold-out throughout its run at the King’s Arms in Salford and certainly lives up to its hype.
As well as writing the show, Clifford plays the lead character, Josh, a boxer who has recently moved into a new house with his fiancée, Kath. They both have high hopes and dreams for their future together. Their elation in planning their wedding is infectious, lulling the audience into a false sense of happiness, expecting this to be a happy-go-lucky romantic drama. This all comes crashing down, when Kath becomes addicted to drugs. Spending their life savings, and no longer able to pay, she resorts to increasingly desperate measures to fund her addiction. Plunged into financial hardship, the couple’s only chance of salvation is Josh winning his next boxing match, and the £10,000 prize.
Although the plot sounds perhaps a little conventional, a quick read of the programme informs that Unbreakable is based on actual events that happened in Danny Clifford‘s life. Because of this, it feels personal and relatable. Clifford’s talent as a playwright is transparent, as he forms an episodic plot that keeps the audience guessing. The ending of each scene works as a cliff-hanger, which creates a gripping, tense play. There were moments where I forgot to exhale because I was that immersed.
Clifford writes well-formed characters that you really care for. This is perfectly realised in his performance as Josh. It is clear that Clifford cares for the character, and this emanates through every sinew of his body. The physical exertion during scenes where he is training as a boxer must be exhausting. But whether skipping, doing push ups, or sit ups, Clifford looks pumped up for a fight. Similarly, his character’s emotional struggles are unrelenting. As Josh’s strained relationships with his father and Kath take their toll, Clifford’s character becomes distracted. In this emotional state, he risks not being fully prepared for the fight ahead.
Eve Gordon is magnificent as Kath. Her descent into addiction is entirely believable, and difficult to watch. A masterful application of make-up forms bags under Kath’s eyes, but it is Gordon’s performance that superbly renders her addiction to drugs. Her movement becomes increasingly agitated before she gets her fix. After taking Spice, her movement slows and her speech turns incoherent. This is a play that doesn’t glorify the use of drugs, it shows the devastating consequences of taking drugs through startling realism. Kath vomits into a bucket, she suffers withdrawal symptoms, and is subject to brutal violence to fund her addiction. Gordon’s performance still evokes sympathy from the audience though. You start to hope that she can turn her life around.
The limited space of the King’s Arms is efficiently utilised. The set only consists of three folding chairs. However, astute lighting design creates different locations, allowing for smooth transitions needed for such an episodic plot. It also provides a flexibility that is required for a play that juxtaposes action scenes with domestic ones. Whether the scene is in a night club, a home, or a drug dealer’s den, subtle lighting changes indicate this without the need to move clunky furniture. It also keeps the play moving along at a swift pace, sometimes permitting two scenes to happen simultaneously on stage.
Unbreakable pulls no punches. Literally. It is brutally violent. People are punched, strangled and bottled. Showing the depths of drug addiction, it is not an easy play to watch. However, it is gripping, tense and dramatic.
Deservedly receiving a standing ovation for each performance, Danny Clifford’s play proves that you don’t have to go to London’s West End to watch something truly astonishing. Sometimes you can find the best theatre down at your local pub!