Chain is an activist play, but not in the usual sense: rather than agitating for a particular point of view, it’s the story of the activists themselves. Peter Gardiner’s script follows a group of young men and women who see an urgent need for change in the world - and who, despairing at conventional politics, commit themselves to covert action which disrupts the powerful forces they oppose. They score some successes, but not everything goes to plan, and soon they face both the threat of discovery and the pressure of conflict from within.
Among the fresh-faced group, there’s one voice of experience: “Littlebits”, a woman who reminisces about armed “direct action” against racist skinheads in the early 90’s. Sophie Stone’s portrayal is characterful, if at times a touch grotesque - her studied indifference and exaggerated facial contortions demonstrating that her newfound colleagues are very much on probation. More could perhaps be made of the tension between the group’s ethos - which renounces violence as its first rule - and Littlebits’ enthusiastic retelling of the pitched battles of her youth, which raises interesting questions around whether fighting fire with fire is ever morally right.
That topic comes increasingly to the fore as the play proceeds, with a young Quaker called Lloyd becoming the group’s voice of conscience. For me, Lloyd is the most interesting of the characters: in general we learn little of the protestors’ backgrounds, but Lloyd has a haunting memory to share, explaining why he wants to strike back against those who hurt others. Actor Charlie Knibb is especially convincing later on, as the unintended consequences mount and his inner conflict bubbles over.
When the group, inevitably, begins to fracture, leader Tipper - who up to that point has been the force that holds it together - starts to reveal a bullying side, albeit one that’s veneered with the principle of majority rule. The script doesn’t labour that theme, and it doesn’t need to; Louis Searle’s man-spreading physicality is well-enough observed to make the point. Charlotte Jones as Cindy and Aaron Ost as Patch make up the ensemble, and the whole cast work well to keep the pace up and push the storyline along.
The ending is interesting, because you could read it in different ways. Perhaps it shows the group maturing, learning, coming to understand that pulling the big levers of society is the most effective way to bring about change. Or are they selling out their original principles? You can make up your own mind. In general though, I do think Chain would benefit from a clearer or more distinctive thesis; there’s drama and conflict, but I found it washed over me, offering little insight to help me understand others or to push me to think differently about my own life.
Chain’s actors are generally at the start of their careers, and inevitably there were a few issues - the occasional clumsy entrance or exit, a smattering of mumbled lines - which further experience and training will resolve. On the whole though, it’s a commendable show from Two Bit Productions, which explores an important topic without resorting to lecturing and carries enough of a storyline to keep us interested and engaged. With the recent emergence of Extinction Rebellion, it’s timely too; an interesting comment on a subject that, like it or not, seems set to affect us all.