Theater Review - Past Tents


When Alan‘s (Seth Jones) car crashes in the middle of nowhere, he hopes his bad day (which started with his wife leaving him) can’t get any worse… and of course it does. After trudging through the muddy countryside, he comes across a campsite, run by the rather eccentric Virgil (Mark Keegan). With no other options and no signal on his phone, he has no choice but to stay the night. Unfortunately for Alan, there’s only one plot left, situated in-between a sheep-poo bin and the hugely annoying Justin (David Keogh).

Justin is everything Alan despises – a positive family man with his life completely in control… or is he? Because things are not what they seem and as the tension builds between the men, they start to reveal their true selves… with hilarious and rather unfortunate consequences.

‘Past Tents’ is the story of two desperate people at the end of their tent ropes, forced into each other’s company. Will they end up finding redemption or will they end up killing each other first?

I first saw Past Tents at a dress rehearsal in London way way back in 2019 (read my review here) It's hard to remember what life was completely like pre covid but if you had told me back then I would live through a time of a global pandemic and the theatres going dark I probably wouldn’t have believed you. A lot has changed and so has Past Tents, David Keogh (Co Writer and Co Star of the show, he wears many hats) assures me that the play is darker and more political than before. What hasn't changed is the cast and for that I am hugely grateful. Keogh, Jones and Keegan work so well on stage it would be hard to imagine the play working without their three way chemistry. I was fortunate to catch opening night of a tour which will see Past Tents performed at venues round the country until December. So, post Covid, does the powerful and funny Past Tents still resonate with the audience and is Justin still just as annoying?

My first impression? The pile of sheep excrement on stage is some of the most wet and glisteningly realistic faux poop I have ever seen on stage. Seriously, book for the theatre stay for the poo! Past Tents has a longer running time (just over 1 hour and a half) with an interval and it also has extra cut in recorded video segments (shown on a big screen) its pacier, funnier and much much darker. Seth portrays Alan as a man who's heart has been ripped out of him and yet with the same incredible sarcasm and energy that ensures audiences are hanging on every word. From the first word to the final scene Past Tents is a play that is so well written and with characters that are so believable you are right alongside them. What is incredible is that the circumstances Alan and Justin have to navigate feel like extreme versions of what so many of us have had to endure recently. I don’t just mean the Covid stuff but the energy crisis, cost of living and just general dark and depressing state of this country. When Alan rants and pushes against a world that seems to care nothing about his pain it's like we are all screaming with him. As annoying as Justin is, and he really is so so incredibly punchable, (nice work Keogh) there is a part of me that wishes I could be that glass half full. I didn’t spoil the play last time and I wont here but the ending when it comes is incredible and even more resonant than before.

Now, lets talk about Virgil. Oh Mark, Mark, Mark how do you manage to portray a man so disturbed, so.... well crusty.... that nothing his perverted little mind is into should surprise me, yet that has a heart of gold and is just so damn likable. Virgil is a terrible Camp Site Manager and yet behind the dubious clothing and sexual preferences there is a man who is loving and just damn lovely. Still wouldn’t like to bump into him on a dark night though. 

Past Tents staging and lighting is minimal but this works entirely in its favour. Keogh, Jones and Keegan are incredible actors who handle the material in such a way that you find yourself seeing more than the scenery on stage. In my minds eye there is a scuzzy, dirty green field with rain lashing down. The humour is desperate and oh so British and yet even more resonate given what we have endured as a nation recently. Laughing at ourselves, at our circumstances is something we do so well and Past Tents, if it is anything, is a celebration of our resilience and spirit to keep fighting through.

Without getting overly personal or contemplative, I admire people who find a way to express their loss, their pain in a way that infuses life into their creativity. The rewrite of Past Tents has a beautiful and painful realism to it because it is born from loss and darkness. As a result of this the themes that are  explored live long in the memory even after the final ripples of applause die down. Past Tents, go see it because plays like this need to be experienced first hand. 

The 2023 tour of Past Tents is dedicated to the memory of Sean Smith who sadly lost his life earlier this year. 

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