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“This ain’t original sin, it’s something else”: Review of Barooj Maqsood’s Middleman

Staff Writers Hannah Durkin and Klara Ismail review Barook Maqsood’s play Middleman

“Despite everything, there’s still two of you in there.” If there was one quote to encapsulate Barooj Maqsood’s Middleman, this hits the mark. Centering around the protagonist (or should we say protagonists) Jasper/Valentine, Middleman presents the thwarted tale of a man trapped in the middle.

Set in the roaring twenties amidst prohibition laws, speakeasies and violent gang rivalry, Middleman transports the audience to a by-gone age of glamour and guns. Right off the bat the audience is thrown into this alcohol-sodden world of drunken debauchery, with morals as shaken and stirred as any moonshine cocktail.
Middleman’s inaugural run took place in the King’s Anatomy theatre, a fitting space for the dissection of Jasper/Valentine’s character. Refurbished in 2009, medical dissections no longer take place here. It is now a ‘digitised, creative and flexible space well suited to a range of artistic, research and teaching activities’.

This venue is truly a hidden gem for performances, and we look forward to seeing what will be performed here next. Maqsood harnesses the intimacy of the venue in order to fully plunge the audience into the world of Jasper/Valentine. Opting to use the raised panoramic viewing balconies as a second layer of action in the play, the conventional spatial boundaries of the stage are broken down. The audience is thrown in the Boston shaker, muddled, shaken and mixed in with all the action.

King’s Anatomy Theatre

Maqsood told us that they ‘really have to think about how you are going to make the audience pay attention.’ Despite a student budget, Maqsood and their team pulled out all the stops. The use of lighting to emphasise or expand viewers’ interpretations of scenes was a great cost-effective way of creating ambiance and drama without flashy effects.

Maqsood subtly uses lighting as an indicator of character development. We particularly enjoyed how the colours of the pride flag flash when Ben seeks justice for Jasper/Valentine, it added another element to the two ‘best friends’ of the play. Subtleties such as these really professionalised the performance and production.

Maqsood also employed a dynamic approach to the set and props, having cast members make and create spaces as part of the performance. Transitional periods of scenes where props were moved around were often incorporated into the scene itself, the choral cast quite physically ‘set up’ the bar in the opening scene while in character.

The continual transformation of space created seamless scene changes and added to the immersion of the performance. It was a really smart way of holding audience attention even during what could have otherwise been clunky transitional periods.

Morality also plays at large in Maqsood’s Middleman. Through a warped depiction of morality, Maqsood highlights the complicated relationship between morality, illegality and gang ‘business’ that played throughout the roaring twenties. Despite being a gun-for-hire we grow to sympathise with Jasper/Valentine and his complicated relationship with violence.

The question of what is right and wrong in Middleman is continually shaken up by this cocktail of emotions for the audience. Typical institutions of moral superiority are brought into the world of criminals, the central speakeasy quite literally being in a church – we see Jasper/Valentine bribing the Priest in the opening scenes.

Bert McLelland playing Jasper/Valentine gave a spectacular performance, bringing to life Maqsood’s middle-man between the two gangs. McLelland’s portrayal of Jasper/Valentine shows a man at a constant internal struggle whilst trying to maintain the veneer of a suave gangster. His performance leads the audience to root for a man we can never really trust.

But the most chilling performance came from Kate McNally, portraying the New York mob godfather, Michele Maranzano. McNally did an exceptional job may have felt moments before being taken ‘for a walk’. The supporting and choral cast made sure the pace of the place fitted the action and narrative, bringing each scene to life.

Kate McNally playing Maranzano

In short, the whole cast created a world of tragic beauty, confused morality, and chilling fear in Middleman.

Hannah Durkin


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