Sunday, 12 August 2012


Recently, a Derry-based production of the National Theatre's Journey To X made it all the way to the London stage. Si's Sights And Sounds was lucky enough to be present when the play was staged in Derry's Playhouse Theatre earlier this year, and here's what we thought...

One of ten plays recently commissioned by the National Theatre for young people, Nancy Harris's Journey To X, seems to be treading all too familiar ground in its early moments. The sight and sound of naive, idealistic schoolchildren, school bullies, and pop songs dominate the first ten minutes, with four benches arranged to resemble a giant red "X" in the centre of the stage. It's all too much like Inbetweeners-lite meets The X-Factor, minus the crudity, of course.

But Journey To X is far more than a series of vignettes showing the lengths a group of youngsters will go to for an appearance on The X-Factor; it's a story of survival and adaptation under changing circumstances. It is quite literally, as the production notes state, "a tale about friendship, a journey, and the risks that teenagers take when plunged into the adult world", and a consistently appealing one at that.

The seemingly slight but subversively strong approach of locally-based director Steve Wakeley allows the inexperienced cast to thrive. Wakeley has brought the play into a Derry-Londonderry setting and cast genuine sixth-formers in the parts, rather than having adults playing schoolchildren a la The Breakfast Club or the aforementioned Inbetweeners. This adds both rawness and authenticity to the play, making even the occasionally stilted line delivery sound somewhat endearing.

The X-Factor, and reality television in general, is a genre ripe for both commentary and satire. Harris’s script literally pulls no punches here, although sometimes more subtly than at other times. There are instances where characters all too openly talk about well worn themes like the fickle and divisive nature of individual fame, the fact that everyone prefers the underdog in competitions, and the false, vain nature of all reality shows. But they’re counterbalanced successfully by amusing and interesting scenes such as a heart-to-heart talk among the girls or the band donning tawdry outfits.  And even at its weakest moments, the play maintains an appeal thanks to the engaging naïveté of the characters.

The script is also smart enough to underline the sticky moral situations that can arise through the reality of the music business. At one point, the band pick-pocket for their monetary needs ("Sometimes, good people have to steal. Look at Robin Hood. Look at Jay-Z.") before trying to justify their actions by saying that victims can profit in the future by selling stories about being robbed by a famous band. Needless to say, there is the matter of becoming famous in the first place, not to mention the long-term consequences of their actions.

There's humanity in the play too, and it mainly comes through Rhianna McPartland's Louise and Aine Harkin’s Penny. Louise reacts particularly angrily to being bullied, resulting in a scene that's both shocking and unprecedented. And Penny has a secret that leads to her wanting to succeed on The X-Factor – but for different reasons to the rest of the band. When we get the full idea of Penny's alienation during the final quarter of the play, it is genuinely affecting.

Most intriguingly, the question of whether or not the band will succeed on The X-Factor is left unanswered. There's every sign that they won't succeed, from their all round disorganisation to their amateur dance routine (displayed memorably to the tune of Blondie's "Call Me"). But - who knows? By the time we hear the play’s ambiguous closing line – “You ready for whatever’s coming next?” – we realise that it couldn't be more apt, as the band, and especially Penny, seem profoundly uncertain as to whether or not they are coming or going.

(Originally written on February 10, 2012.)