Review by Harry Bower
How do you take almost one hundred members of the community and turn them into an effective cast for a theatre production? If it is challenging in any way, which I’m sure it must be, then those challenges are hidden remarkably well in 24 (Day), a new play by Annie Jenkins. Every now and again you watch a show which you feel could have been written just for you. I suspect that 24 (Day) may have that impact on a great number of its audience. I’ve lived in Islington since I moved to the city just over five years ago, and already I know it to be a hugely welcoming and vibrant community of people and places which quickly compelled me to call it home.
It's the 21st April 2023. Arsenal are top of the league, and it's a seemingly innocuous day in North London for gloriously inappropriate and no-nonsense Liz (Jean Woollard) and her brooding grandson Mark (Kwami Odoom). Slowly things begin to go wrong, first with Liz’s cancer diagnosis, then the revelation that Mark has failed his appearance for The Knowledge, the infamously difficult Black Cab exam. The pair’s relationship is strained by the funeral of Liz’s best friend, also recently affected by cancer, and Mark’s struggle to make ends meet in his delivery job while overcoming a breakup. As the name suggests, the show takes us on a journey of 24 hours in the life of Liz, as she navigates her newfound truth, deals with her grief, and rebuilds her relationship with her grandson.
What’s truly special about this show is the writing. It’s fresh, contemporary, witty, and intelligent – almost sitcom-esque - and the community scenes are the branches hung from a sturdy and reliable narrative trunk. This is a piece of theatre crafted with its vast cast in mind. Scenes are carved in such a way that safety nets are offered to those who may stumble over their lines, and the delivery of the consistently sassy and sarcastic dialogue brings amusement in spades, each cast member bringing their own unique style of comic timing. The cast size isn’t wasted either, with huge numbers backstage for large portions of the show, and those left around the edge used to good effect as makeshift props and set pieces or bustling crowds.
Liz is the antithesis of a stereotypical older character you would normally see depicted on-stage. As pointed out in the programme writer’s note, in the entirety of the two hour show the character barely sits down. Instead, Liz is at the centre of a fever dream-like tale which is normally reserved for young people. Her story is unapologetic in its rejection of the stereotypes of those who are ordinarily represented in stuffy and unimaginative ways. It is stupendously effective in that regard.
Act two is, amongst other things, a love letter to Rowan’s Bowling Alley in Islington. For those who don’t know, this is a bowling alley, club, and karaoke joint all rolled into one, and it serves to represent the very best and worst of nightlife in the borough (and, arguably of London). Every stereotype is true to life as Rowan’s plays host to the usual sights on a night out; eclectic characters, make ups, break ups, overzealous security, the perfume mafia marshalling the toilets, wacky DJs, and digs at South London. As Liz becomes ‘Lizard’, proclaimed by party goers as their queen and pseudo agony aunt, she is led to an epiphany. Concurrently, Mark is guided through his own break-up and emotional trauma by a ghostly Arsene Wenger figure with a dodgy French accent.
If I’m making the show sound unserious then perhaps that is doing it a dis-service. It is very funny, but there are very real emotional threads throughout and some deeply poignant moments which make the audience pause for thought. The scenes in which Liz comes to terms with the loss of her best friend, her cancer diagnosis, and what it means for her husband in a care home, are heartbreaking and thought-provoking in equal measure. There are visceral football related scenes in which the hope and subsequent tragedy of the 2022/23 football season for Arsenal are represented in one result, the 4-3 win against Southampton last season. The theme of grief extends to the football, and the show acts almost as a physical manifestation of their season, intertwined with the sense of community, loss, and love for each other as well as the game.
Woollard and Odoom are both accomplished actors who perform their roles with the upmost dedication and personality. Their chemistry as relatives is beautiful to watch as the story unfolds, and their professionalism in allowing space for others to shine on-stage cannot be understated. Neither dominate, instead complimenting the performances of each other and the wider cast. There are some stars in the community cast, too. The person playing Connor, Jackie’s son, is bashful in their portrayal of this fundamentally quite sad but enduringly endearing young man. The football commentators nail their delivery, those involved in the pre-show warm up do a stellar job of keeping the energy high, and the cast of party goers in gold outfits steal the scenes they’re in.
24 (Day) is community theatre at its very best. There are layers of narrative which build a strong sense of camaraderie on-stage and provide opportunities which cast members new to theatre may not otherwise have had. The whole thing feels incredibly local and yet still accessible for its audience. When two people seem to be having such a terrible day and cannot connect with each other, they are lifted up and have their fortunes transformed by the people, places, and stalwarts of North London. This show is a caricature snapshot of Islington, and it is beautiful. I feel lucky to have witnessed a remarkable contribution by so many, in tribute to the stories and the people behind one of my favourite places.
24 (Day) – The Measure Of My Dreams played at The Almeida Theatre in August 2023. For more information visit: https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/24-day/
Photos by Ian Hippolyte