Hoodie with a heart, tart with same, and plucky granny: at first glance the character list of Mrs Reynolds and the Ruffian is pretty standard issue. That said, Gary Owen's new urban fable for the Watford Palace does have a rather winsome combination of grit and charm.
It's a homily on the hot potato of youth delinquency in "Brown's Britain", and in particular the strategy of restorative justice, where the offender is required to make amends in some way for the damage caused. In this instance, repairs must be made to the victim's garden, thus teeing up a proliferation of metaphors, stated and unstated, relating to gardening - bad seeds, not all roses in the garden - you get the picture.
That the play breaks out of cliché is down to some gutsy and funny writing, and a great central performance from Morgan Watkins as the eponymous ruffian. He's a familiar type: mis-matched trackies, wet-look hair gel, body too big for him. Watkins slopes and sidles round the stage, always on the oblique, avoiding eye contact. Vocally he does a nice line in the teenage whine that is deliberately unexpressive for fear of betraying weakness. He is gobby - quite literally so, as he hawks lustily into Mrs Reynolds's tea, and during their critical show-down, spits savagely in her face. Crucially Owen also gives him a shocking back-story. He is both repulsive and endearing, clever and naïve: in short, complicated. Watching him break down, a little boy lost, and try different laddish registers as he tries different "mates" on his mobile, is genuinely moving.
The blend of savage realism and comedy is a tricky alloy to get right, and I'm not entirely convinced that the cast always have it nailed. If anything they are slightly over-sparkly and twinkly for this grubby, muddied world (but not sparkly enough for a send-up of it).
Initially Trudie Goodwin (veteran star of The Bill) seems a little too trim and reedy, a little too young to play Mrs Reynolds. After all it would be a lot funnier to have someone genuinely ancient shouting "bollocks". But by the end of the show I was beginning to suspect that director Brigid Larmour was playing a longer and more patient game here, and quietly messing with ideas of what it means to be old. And all credit to Owen for writing in a role for women "in the middle way". Even the title seems to craftily lay down the gauntlet to expectation, with its coy, dated nomenclature.
Mrs Reynolds certainly has reserves of steel, and is an expert at the laconic put-down. It becomes apparent that she is as much of a player as Jay. She also has some delightfully dry schoolmarmish moments: in the little municipal garden, where only the graffiti blooms, she uses the spray-paint obscenities for a disquisition on the importance of spelling. The legend STACEY LYKS COCK is written by someone "trying to tell us something about Stacey". But we can't be exactly sure what it is. "And why not? Because of poor spelling."
Like the writing, the design of the play seems to flirt with, and then just sidestep the banal. The show opens with barbed wire and roses in opposing corners of the stage - so far, so obvious - but when the scene shifts to the outdoor space, a defaced wall emerges, which appears to be holding back a truly mountainous tide of rubbish, the crap of ages. It makes Mrs Reynolds's clean-up efforts look at once pointless and heroic. Colourful projections show the rampant graffiti blossoming before being dutifully whitewashed by Jay.
Owen charts a skilful course through the changing dynamics between old lady and young offender, and his play is an upbeat testament to the redemptive power of a spot of nurturing and a spot of gardening. But towards the end of the play he appears to tack on a whole other story: Mrs Reynolds is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and suddenly we are catapulted into another play's worth of inquiry about assisted suicide, which we are galloped through at unseemly pace. The plot not so much thickens as curdles. Incidentally, the sketchy background details relating to pram-face neighbour and love interest Mel, who has shagged her way through her self-esteem issues, also seems deserving of more attention; this narrative perhaps merits promotion from sub-plot.
But it seems ungrateful to bemoan such superabundance. This is quality new writing staged by Larmour and her team that might just put Watford on the map for something other than being on its edge.