Britannia Waves The Rules opens fire at the Royal Exchange

Polly Checkland Harding

This popular, Bruntwood Prize winning play returns to Manchester’s Royal Exchange studio, fixing its audience firmly in its sights for seven performances only.

Britannia Waves The Rules is a play that lives or dies on the strength of one actor. For a pell-mell eighty minutes, its central character, Carl Jackson, doesn’t leave the stage. We follow him from Blackpool to military service in Afghanistan and back again, watch him rage, run, love, laugh, fight and fall apart, never once escaping his world, his head space. And it’s not always an easy place to be: we begin with coloured lights and the dark and properly funny satire of a depressed coastal town, but the sand that’s kicked across the stage for the pleasure beach doubles as a war-torn Afghan desert later in the play. It’s here that Carl shifts from likeable, lyrical buoyancy to burned-out resignation, re-shaped by conflict like a dune in the wind. He is trapped and angry from the start – and this challenge, in the hands of the wrong actor, could turn writer Gareth Farr’s Bruntwood Prize winning script into a long yawn of fury.

This is a play that lives or dies on the strength of one actor

In the hands of actor Dan Parr, Britannia Waves The Rules is gripping, truthful and horribly moving. Parr switches emotion on an arcade coin, tests the confines of the stage with a restless energy that’s mesmeric to watch. This kind of performance would be impressive coming from a seasoned thespian – from a twenty-one year-old, it’s remarkable. Parr is joined by four other cast members who take on the other, assorted parts. In the play’s first outing at the Exchange, the cast were also performing in The Last Days of Troy, which was on rotation with the play – though new actors will be joining Parr, the resonances between the two scripts still stand. Both pieces explore obedience, escapism and violence, but where Simon Armitage spoke through an ancient epic, Gareth Farr zones in on a far more modern war.

Britannia Waves The Rules questions whether war indelibly runs through us as humans, like the “writing in a stick of rock”. This idea feels very current amongst this year’s commemorations of the Centenary; it has been picked up by Manchester Museum’s From the War of Nature exhibition and, after all, is still playing out on a global stage. The issues it looks at may be perpetual, but Britannia Waves the Rules itself only returns to the Royal Exchange studio for a further seven performances, before it goes on tour. It will be another short, powerful, burning run in Manchester. This is, after all, the story of one man’s meteoric career – and as Carl himself points out, “meteors don’t rise, they fall.”

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