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Parliament Square review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘thought-provoking’

Esther Smith and Lois Chinimba in Parliament Square at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Richard Davenport Esther Smith and Lois Chinimba in Parliament Square at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Richard Davenport

James Fritz’s play, winner of the Bruntwood judges award in 2015, hangs on one shocking and incendiary act of seemingly inexplicable self-destruction.

An outwardly content young mother leaves her husband and daughter to go down to London to set herself on fire in the heart of Westminster. The moment of self-immolation and its immediate aftermath – presented by the directorJude Christian and her design team as a dizzyingly unforgettable, ear-piercing nightmare of sound, light, smoke and tumbling ashes – is such a brilliantly realised coup de theatre that the action surrounding it rather suffers in comparison.

In a clever device, the build-up sees Kat – played by Esther Smith with total conviction – debating her decision with a cajoling voice in her head, winningly personified by Lois Chimimba. But these early scenes are rather too drawn out and keeping Kat’s intentions under wraps for so long creates frustration rather than intrigue.

In the final third of the play, as Kat tries to rebuild her life in the years following while her loved ones struggle to comprehend her actions, the writing pulls at the threads of her motivations without fully explaining them. On one hand the play seems to suggest that single acts of defiance in the face of social injustice are futile but then it does an about turn in its final moments, leading to a credulity-stretching denouement.

Fritz’s writing is, however, strong throughout, and the cast wring maximum humour and humanity from his dialogue and well-realised characterisations – especially Seraphina Beh as a charmingly self-aggrandising first responder.

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Searing visuals and convincing performances bolster James Fritz’s thought-provoking new play