The Paines Plough Roundabout has become a symbol of the Fringe, developing its own signature style in the process. Paines Plough shows usually have small casts, often of three, who play multiple roles and often share side characters. They feature one multipurpose set item, luxuriate in the completely unique lighting rig, and often incorporate music into stories about social action. Half-Empty Glasses, co-produced by the Rose Theatre, does all of these things, but unfortunately, it tries to pack too much into its brief 60 minutes, creating problems with pacing that keep the show from reaching the heights of others in the category.
The over-full script of Half-Empty Glasses still allows for the messiness of life to come through
Toye is a high school student in a London state school. He loves playing the piano and is neglecting his two best friends, Asha and Remi, to practice relentlessly. As Toye’s father, suffering from Parkinson’s and portrayed alternately by the other two cast members, worsens, Toye finds himself consumed by the desire to ‘make an impact’ by teaching his fellow students Black history, bringing Asha and Remi along with him.
If I had to draw one theme to the fore, Half-Empty Glasses is about the pitfalls of activism, and their special presence in the lives of adolescents finding their way in the world. Toye, Asha, and Remi start out thrilled, and end up in friendship-threatening clashes over tactics, goals, leadership, collaboration, and whose history is deserving of their attention.
The relationships between the three core characters are robust, meaningful, and beautifully portrayed, but the number of factors impacting them can be overwhelming and new threads seem to appear out of nowhere, only to be touched upon occasionally. Toye’s relationship with his neighbourhood, friends, father, skill as a musician, and even his own identity as a first-generation Black Briton feel rushed or underdeveloped. His mental state is telegraphed by his piano playing, a beautiful combination of lighting, recorded music, and non-literal movement. However, his focus turned to activism so early in the play it was hard to remember that this was supposed to be his base state.
Half-Empty Glasses allows for great nuance in the story of learning to act. Toye is far from perfect as a thinker and a leader, and is called on it. Remi and Asha are allowed their ambivalences and dignity, standing strong within a difficult friendship. The perceived stakes of being a teenager, when every decision seems life or death, come through powerfully. Far from perfect, the over-full script of Half-Empty Glasses still allows for the messiness of life to come through in all its complexity.