Downstairs something lovely, funny and warming is unfolding. But upstairs, rather like an old haunted house, there are rather less happy goings on.

There’s a curious dynamic to a theatre staging two different productions at the same time. Theatres often appear living, breathing. But when there are two productions with their own outlooks, ambiances and audiences going on at the same time that notion is even more explicit.

Downstairs people were being entertained by the glorious farce of Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests. Upstairs in the small, rather warm Playhouse Studio people were enduring something rather gruelling.

That may sound like faint praise indeed, but the 100-minute running time of Frank McGuinness’ The Match Box certainly put the audience through the wringer. While it would probably work anywhere, the play has an unavoidable resonance with Liverpool, particularly relating to the killing of Rhys Jones, and takes a long, hard look at the attitudes of Liverpool and Irish communities.

This is a weighty monologue, though actress Leanne Best diverts into other characters as she tells her story, her command of accent and inflection never less than sublime. Best relates the story of Sal, a very well observed character – a young woman from Liverpool – whose life is brought crashing down by a cataclysmic event that shapes the life of her and her family.

As a narrative The Match Box might not hold many surprises, but there are wonderful moments of wit and observation amongst the text, well-drawn characters and some neat – if rather obvious – uses of device. As the play enters the final act there are moments of genuine horror, uncanny even. Unfortunately the conclusion of the play collapses into ever-decreasing, overblown circles but the overall impact is of a thoroughly powerful and expertly crafted play.

In the wrong hands it could, however, suffer. There are moments that could devolve into melodrama and soap-opera hysteria, but a deft directorial hand from Lia Williams, minimalist set-up and stunning performance from Best never allow The Match Box to settle into a familiar rhythm.

From the opening tableau to the closing moments of the play, Leanne Best gives a performance of such visceral power that it stings the eyes with emotion and sheer force.

Sal is the sort of woman you don’t know whether to embrace or run away from, such is her simultaneous vulnerability and nervous energy. She seems frequently self-possessed and in command; yet the next moment she appears to have little more than the frightening, unshakeable conviction of a woman who has been driven almost totally out of her mind.

The claustrophobic set forces the audience directly into the hovel-like room where Sal resides; she recounts her story to us as she might to a captive passer-by. Best tells her sorrowful tale as if, at times, recounting a trip to the seaside – it makes Sal’s lurches into spitting vengeance all the more alarming.

Addressing audience members directly makes for a startlingly personal experience – one that many may not welcome, but it makes for an experience virtually unrivalled in the theatre. The force of Leanne Best’s performance pushes you back in your chair; dares you to meet her gaze; accuses; pleads; challenges.

The effect is electrifying, overwhelming – Best’s performance will be seared on the brain for a long time and deserves all the plaudits it will surely receive.

We did not hang around afterwards; the effect of watching The Match Box was almost draining. The contrast of The Norman Conquests, playing out downstairs; the bravery of giving McGuinness’s play its premier in Liverpool threw into sharp relief what was going on in the Playhouse’s enigmatic attic performance space.

Something utterly incendiary; something scaldingly thrilling.

The Match Box
Liverpool Playhouse Studio
Until 7 July

Image by Christian Smith

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