Here's to you, Mrs Reynolds

Adventurous theatre delves into "Brown's Britain".

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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear