Theatre503 has established a reputation as a great place to see new writing. The current production, the inaugural showing of Alan Franks’ A World Elsewhere, marries with that the chance to see some great new talent as it utilises a mostly young cast.
Set within Oxford University in the late 1960s, A World Elsewhere follows roommates Toby and Chris, and the very different ways they have of engaging with the wider world. This is a play about ideas, examined in a Chekhovian style: seismic shifts are happening across the globe whilst the changes are felt inside the walls of an unchanging institution. The title of the piece is apposite. Alan Franks’ writing is subtle and clever, burning with an even heat. The period is neatly captured by the costumes and the Bob Dylan soundtrack.
The most powerful idea at the heart of the piece is that young people have the power to change the world, and Sally Knyvette’s direction deserves enormous credit for bringing out the best out of young actors in order to convey this idea to its fullest.
Steffan Donnelly is great fun as the ineffectual but affable Toby, a young man from a privileged background doing his best to live up to socialist ideals. Sophia Sivan treads the right line between charming and manipulative as Pippa; whilst Michael Swatton brings maturity to the role of Elliott, the self-assured American whose presence on campus affects the lives of the other students in different ways. Crispian Cartwright makes the most of a small role as Mayhew, a professor with a dirty secret who’s a relic from an earlier epoch. He’s as stuffy and pompous as any Arthur Lowe creation.
Whilst the ensemble is impressive, it’s Dan Van Garrett’s performance as Chris that is a real standout. With relatively little stage time and dialogue, Van Garrett creates a memorable character, conveying much more as the intelligent and abrasive northern chemist than is in the script. During a later scene in which Chris is moved to tears, he combines anger and vulnerability with breath-taking results. Van Garrett reminds us of a young Anthony Hopkins at the start of his career, both in physicality and in the controlled power of his performance.
Whilst the themes of A World Elsewhere are universal, incorporating opposition to war and the undemocratic behaviour of powerful western countries, the university setting renders it most evocative for those who have experienced it. Anyone old enough to remember or appreciate tax-payer funded higher education (which Pippa refers to as a ‘scandal’) will take the most from the play, especially if they are now parents footing the bill. There are welcome literary references in the text too (the title is from Coriolanus, which is also woven into the story), and these will similarly be best appreciated by those in a position to spot them. A play of quietly spoken important ideas, A World Elsewhere is both celebration and analysis of the last time young people could make their voices heard without fear.
See our interview with director Sally Knyvette in which she speaks to us about the show.