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Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead review at the Vaults, London – ‘flashes of wit’

Ciarán Owens in Don't waste Your Bullets on the Dead at the Vaults, London Ciarán Owens in Don't waste Your Bullets on the Dead at the Vaults, London
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Writing a play about writing a play is a bit like inviting a Michelin-starred chef over for dinner and then cooking their signature dish – you’d really better get it right.

Freddie Machin’s play is full of wit. It contains zinging lines and an anthology’s worth of ideas, but it is hoisted by its own petard when the playwright at the centre of the action concludes that she has nothing to write about and, well, there we are.

Ellen Billington is writing a play about two New World pilgrims making their way in 1620s America, while at the same time dealing with pressure from her partner who’s insistent they keep to their slavish procreation schedule. The early scenes, in which the fictional world of Ellen’s play bleeds freely into her real life, are promising and the cast make the most of the rich, Blackadder-ish comic potential at the heart of the play-within-a-play. Ciarán Owens in particular, whether as a 17th century varmint or a highly strung 21st century actor, makes the most of Machin’s gift for writing comedy.

But as Ellen makes her own pilgrimage to America and the action is increasingly dominated by her faintly ridiculous creative struggle with an objectionable actor, things start to fall apart. There are some neat moments – the director using sound effects against her mutinous actors is a device which has wonderful potential – but they’re swamped by a strained effort to make us understand the exquisite agonies of the writer. Machin’s clearly a skilled writer, with real potential. and given the right subject matter, he could create something really superb. Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead isn’t it though.

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Verdict
Flashes of wit and a strong cast fail to enliven a play about playwriting
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