N89, Matchstick Piehouse

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Mark Daniels’ bus-bound play is an enjoyable slice of life drama, with a flavour that will be instantly recognisable to those Londoners who’ve suffered the indignities, deprivations, and low comedy of a night bus journey home. Edwina Strobl’s production goes further, forcing patrons to adopt the seating arrangements offered on the upper decks. There’s more leg room at the Matchstick Piehouse, but fewer people accidentally pressing the bell to arrest the already interminably long trip for other passengers. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty accurate simulacrum of the N89 journey.

The focus of the story is a culture clash between boozy and sleepy working class Kim, and the awkward trainee lawyer, Daniel – a man nursing a race-based identity crisis. As they parry interventions from a succession of London stock characters – the oversharing gay, the bullish would-be ghetto girl, the desolate party refugee, their backstories are teased out, and there’s a nice and sometimes tender, coming together. The boy and girl from different sides of the tracks finding common ground may be an oldie, but Daniels is right to think that the kind of social sampling that takes place on public transport could, and often does, facilitate this kind of cross pollination.

Grace Boyle and Ocean Harris are natural and believable as the fast friends. You ache for them to swap numbers, to build something beyond this journey, but the play isn’t that indulgently sentimental. It knows that chance encounters may induce want, but they’re often fleeting. London smashes people together and pulls them apart just as quickly.

There’s a few clunky elements. The gradual reveal of Kim’s domestic difficulties and responsibilities feels more natural than Daniel’s segue into the minefield of identity politics; but the performers, exuding warmth and vulnerability, make it work.

Though the action is, er, frontloaded at the back of the bus, with most of the audience facing, the staging occasionally forces those with stiff necks to rotate, to enjoy the full panorama of activity. Unlike the real N89, nosing here doesn’t lead to a conversation with a paranoid psychopath who’ll glass you for glancing. It does make you wonder, however, if slip seating would you have been the better choice – the gain being the complete stage, at the expense of some fun but ultimately superfluous immersive elements.

Ultimately, N89 is a fun journey, so nothing like its real life counterpart. It may be more expensive than a single trip on the route, but it’s also safer, more emotionally rewarding, and has greater laughs. Even the vomit smells better.

N89 runs until April 2nd. Photo Credit: Oli Sones. 

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