Review: Jam at the Finborough Theatre

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On the hottest day of the year so far, the air hangs thick and walls seem to close in on themselves. Even the Finborough Arms, doors and windows flung wide open, seems claustrophobic. It’s nothing, though, in comparison with the oppressive confines of the upstairs theatre, where throughout Matt Parvin’s Jam, I’m never sure whether the sweat dripping down my back is caused by temperature or tension.

For the characters as well, dread builds within the boundaries of a single room. Bella Sorouch is working alone in her classroom after hours when an unexpected visitor, Kane McCarthy, darkens the doorway. When a grown man invades a woman’s space with a baseball bat sticking out of his bag, it seems it could only go one way, but Kane’s not the only assailant in the room. Ten years ago he was just thirteen and it was Bella, his adult teacher, who was the aggressor. Or at least that’s the way Kane’s story goes.

Throughout, I’m rarely sure whose side I’m on. Director Tommo Fowler allows each character to present their side convincingly, before letting their accounts slowly crumble. The see-sawing of narratives and mismatched remembrances is represented effectively through Emma Bailey’s stage design, which places a ramp across one side of the space allowing the characters to take turns physically gaining the higher ground. Even when they meet in the middle, and all seems to have been resolved, all it takes is one misstep and the see-saw is set in motion again.

This balancing act is made especially vivid by two excellent performances. Harry Melling as shuffling, awkward Kane is electric, inciting pity one moment, unease the next. Jasmine Hyde’s Bella is at her best when she’s at her quietest, reacting to Kane’s every move like an animal penned in, eyes searching for the nearest exit. In the final moments when the action descends into something a little too much like melodrama her screams can be a little jarring, but they do at least match the scale of her anger.

Jam ends up being a play about prejudice; Bella recounts Kane’s racism against her Iranian heritage, where Kane thinks Bella judged him and his family for their class. For me, it makes more sense to think of the play as a struggle to apportion and accept blame, guilt, and accountability, to internalise one’s own myriad past failings and misconceptions whatever they may have been, and try to change. When Bella joins Kane at the highest point of the ramp in the closing moments after a ferocious show down in which there’s been no real winner, she seems to have come to the same conclusion.

Catch Jam at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday 17th June. 
Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond

Photo credit: Matthew Foster