Desperate, angry and loving, Ed Edwards’ play England & Son is a searing one-hander that burns on long after the audience has vacated their seats. Written especially for Mark Thomas, who gives a masterstroke performance, the play follows a young man whose life is brutalised by abuse and addiction. But the frame of this portrait also extends beyond the parameters of his own experience, to insist how the violence that the British empire sanctioned in faraway places will inevitably be brought home.
In less capable hands, such ambition and scope would result in an impassioned, but ultimately stilted political mouthpiece. Instead, the detail with which Edwards renders this young man’s world – both its cruelty, and its moments of compassion – makes these truths feel lived-in. The rubber of the father’s scrapyard is a potent sign of how the evils of colonialism and free-market capitalism go hand-in-hand; but it’s also an indelible part of the narrator’s short childhood. And Thomas’ dynamicism ensures that our narrator is no mere symbol of anything: he’s a living, breathing, funny and flawed boy whose horizons are rapidly collapsing around him. His treatment in the youth detention centres that were opened under the “short, sharp shock” policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government in particular strangles the air out of the room.
But again, what prevents England & Son from backsliding into mere pain pornography is its insistence on joy, even beauty, as meaningful and essential lessons in creating a better world. Whether everyone is given access to such an education is another matter.