Playland – The Empty Space, Footlights Theatre

Over the past few years, Elysium Theatre Company have become a force to be reckoned with. They are on the forefront of making high quality theatre for northern audiences. Having previously staged critically acclaimed productions of Jesus Hopped on the ‘A’ Train and Miss Julie, Elysium have built a reputation for producing complex plays that are profound, provocative and deliberately uncomfortable to watch. Playland is no different.

Playland Athol Fugard Footlights Theatre Salford Elysium Theatre Company Manchester Theatre Review Faz Singhateh
The night watchman of Playland – Martinus Zoeloe (Faz Singhateh). Picture Credit – Victoria Wai Photography.

Playland takes place on New Years Eve, 1989, in a fairground in South Africa. “Playland is happy land. Big lights and music”. It couldn’t be more different to the reality of life at the time. After decades of fighting, the South African army was defeated during this year, and the Apartheid regime was starting to dissolve. Nelson Mandela would be released from prison in 1990, beginning the process of repealing Apartheid. This was a time of profound political and racial tension.

Athol Fugard‘s play captures this tension in its two perplexing characters. Gideon Le Roux is a soldier from the South African Border War. Gideon seems to be a happy-go-lucky guy, here to celebrate New Year’s Eve. However, it soon becomes clear that he suffers from PTSD. Martinus Zoeloe is the deeply religious night watchman of Playland, but his fixation on Commandment number six, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, indicates that he is hiding a dark secret.

These are two contrasting, troubled individuals who are both shrouded in mystery, with their true characters being slowly revealed throughout the play. The antithesis and conflict between the two is riveting, partly due to the astonishing performances by both actors.

Playland Athol Fugard Footlights Theatre Salford Elysium Theatre Company Manchester Theatre Review
Martinus Zoeloe (Faz Singhateh) and Gideon La Roux (Danny Solomon). Picture Credit – Victoria Wai Photography.

Actors Faz Singhateh and Danny Solomon previously worked together on Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and this experience shows on stage through their finely tuned performances. Both actors sport convincing South African accents, and credit has to be given to vocal coach Graham Eaglesham for making the dialogue sound authentic. This is an accent that is parodied so often (Lethal Weapon 2’s “Diplomatic Immunity”, for example), that it is rare to hear it sound so natural on stage or on film.

Danny Solomon is one of my favourite actors and Playland shows why. He never plays straightforward characters. Adept at presenting characters that are multifaceted, Solomon’s characters are often troubled and rarely likeable, but he adds a humanity and vulnerability to them, which is captivating.

As with his character in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Gideon Le Roux has an underlying traumatic past that slowly surfaces as the new year approaches. The clues are there all along, namely in his chain smoking and continual drinking from a hip flask. He speaks about needing pills to help him sleep, and describes 1989 as “the worst year of my entire life”. But Solomon’s Le Roux starts the night in a jovial, high spirited nature. It is delightful to see him dancing to music, superbly chosen by Chris Neville-Smith, with a crown on his head.

However, as the clocks strike midnight, and fireworks explode, illuminating the sky, Le Roux’s façade comes crashing down when his PTSD is triggered causing an anxiety attack. It is a devastating moment that delivers a sucker-punch, as Solomon curls into the fetal position, evidently distressed, weeping. The play takes an unexpected serious turn, as Le Roux searches for redemption and forgiveness for the atrocities he committed as a soldier.

Playland Athol Fugard Footlights Theatre Salford Elysium Theatre Company Manchester Theatre Review
Gideon La Roux (Danny Solomon) has a breakdown. Picture Credit – Victoria Wai Photography.

In addition to accurately depicting the psychological trauma of a soldier suffering from PTSD, Solomon injects profound humanity into the role, evoking empathy for his character. Even when he recounts the horrific experiences of the Border War, murdering 27 black South Africans and throwing them into a mass grave, the trauma and repentance etched onto Solomon’s face makes his brutal account utterly heart-wrenching. This is one of the finest performances I have seen on stage.

Although he plays the passive watchman for most of Playland, Faz Singhateh is sublime as Martinus Zoeloe. As he sits observing, or reading the Bible, Singhateh simmers with a brooding tension. His brows are furrowed and his mannerisms are never relaxed, rendering a puzzling character who is brimming with bottled up anger, evidently holding a hidden secret. It is clear that there is something underlying his recitals from the Bible.

When this surfaces, and his fixation with “number six” is revealed, Singhateh’s reservation erupts into murderous hatred that is frightening to witness in such a small, intimate space. In contrast to Solomon’s Le Roux, when Singhateh’s Martinus Zoeloe describes the event that led to him committing murder, there is no remorse in his character. He enjoys reliving the events of that night, and Singhateh delivers this with powerful, bitter resentment.

With both characters facing a moment of mutual redemption, the two actors deliver astounding performances that are deeply absorbing and utterly captivating.

Playland is another knockout play from Elysium Theatre Company. Theatre honestly doesn’t get much better than this. Their work thoroughly deserves to be played to larger audiences, because everything I have seen by them has been of the highest quality.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Disclaimer – This review has not been influenced in any way by the fact that I accidentally scratched Danny Solomon’s car whilst parking. Surprisingly, I passed my driving test with only two minors!

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