Simon Stephens’ Motortown, directed by Rob Ike is frank and confrontational. It alienates us and makes us uncertain what its intentions are. The curtains open on a heap of dumped, broken objects. The pile is only added to in the course of the play. Scene changes involve throwing all the props at the back wall. The sparse, smashed up set is bleak. The use of short-lived and difficult-to-see clips (the televisions are at the side of the stage and at the audience’s eyelevel) hints that this should be film. Motortown is carnage that would be better across a screen than a barren stage. In the theatre we are too close for comfort.
Motortown is a play about brutalised soldier, ‘Danny’. ‘Danny’ returns from Bazra to a ‘Civvie Street’, which he resents having fought for, a mess of disparate individuals. Motortown’s characters are really very varied but, to the credit of the cast, still plausible. ‘Danny’ is played with aggressive vulnerability and a sense of diminishing control by Will Featherstone. Alex Clatworthy is fierce and uncompromising as his ex-girlfriend, ‘Marley’. ‘Paul’, a gangly and philosophical paedophile, is played by the unnervingly adept Alistair Roberts, whilst Joan Lyiola is sassily naïve as the fourteen-year old ‘Jade’. Though, Lyiola is upstaged by the arrival of the five-year-old blonde ‘Phillipa’ skipping to Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’.
Motortown is embarrassingly abrasive. It makes ‘Baby One More Time’ into an invitation to be hit in the face. It’s uncomfortable in a way that is more likely to draw a wry smile than a wince. Motortown is a play that doesn’t patronise us into an attempt at understanding being in a war and killing someone, dousing them in petrol and shooting them in the stomach, but it gives us the impression we will probably never ‘get’ Iraq. We are like the Boden catalogue, middle-class couple, ‘Justine’ (Patrick Warner) and ‘Helen’ (Emma Hiddleton), who proposition ‘Danny’ to have a threesome. They are middle-of-the-road, average people, who think they are liberal and open-minded, for their dirty weekend, for walking in their Birkenstocks in the anti-war march. They need to create their own, false sense of risk and excitement. ‘Danny’ was in a war which was scarringly real. He has come back a mess, which, like it or not, Motortown puts up against a wall.