“not just funny but well-structured with a neat ending”
‘I’m vegan!’ blurts out white, wealthy Mai on first meeting black, broke Mo, an instant assertion of her right-headed and socially conscious credentials. To Mai, of course, Mo has no need for such credentials, so the two progress immediately to probing each other’s commitment to saving the planet and changing society. They declare their attendance at climate protests and refusal to take Ubers, except in exceptional circumstances. They abhor any organisations with questions hanging over their right-headedness and social conscience. As their relationship nervously moves through the gears, an arms race of committedness commences. They move into Mai’s inherited home, negotiate the minefield between their respective privilege and realism and wind up living the reductionist result of their posturing, existing indoors, without gas or electricity, eating chickpeas and chanting daily their promise to preserve the earth’s resources. Inevitably, the relationship frays, from about the moment they are forced to eat Mai’s pet goldfish.
The writer of Omelette, Anna Spearpoint, plays Mai with spot-on comic timing, as you might expect, while the promising Kwami Odoom adapts easily to the chippy interplay. The upshot is an unrelenting to and fro in which Mai’s habits, neuroses and ethical blind spots are matched with those of Mo in a stream of sparring, snogging, preaching and pledging.
Long Distance Theatre has its own pledge, to produce works that shake us while raising a smile. Anna Spearpoint’s script certainly does the latter, not just funny but well-structured with a neat ending. However, unclear which case it’s making, it doesn’t quite do the former. Our dietary threat to the planet, the contradictions of activism, the plight of the let-down-badly generation, or the death spiral of relationships all seem like good candidates. The zero-carbon nature of the production supports the idea that the play’s subject is climate anxiety, but as a snapshot of a generation desperately grasping security and meaning, it hints at something darker, helped by Tash Hyman’s direction. Wheeling round each other on a circular stage, the movement and precise lighting (Rajiv Pattani) dramatise the physical and intellectual dances the two characters must perform. Sound design (Alice Boyd) provides angsty links, slipping time forward in skips and leaps, while props appear mysteriously, indeed mystifyingly, via motorcycle-helmeted couriers (production design by Seren Noel). Accompanied by VAULT Festival’s own thundering train rumbles and dripping water, the whole ends up, like Mai and Mo themselves, a bit more apocalyptic than necessary.
“as completely random and unexpected as it is, it makes me inexplicably happy”
I feel slightly ill-equipped to properly appraise a show that employs so many different contrivances. Dirty Crusty, written by Clare Barron, begins with a plain white origami doll’s house lit from within, accompanied by a voice-over conversation between house mates. Jeanine (Akiya Henry) then appears on the upper stage followed by Victor (Douggie McMeekin) both of whom are holding giant CBBC style microphones. They deliver their conversation half facing the audience, a giant glowing moon projected behind them, and then suddenly they break in to song. They then clamber down to the main set, cast off their microphones and resume a sort of normal narrative.
I say ‘sort of’ because Jay Miller’s direction goes on to use (amongst other things) dance, voice-over narration, another musical number, and strange employment of time. Scenes in entirely different venues, often on different days, overlap: Jeanine and Victor are entangled in bed as Synda (Abiona Omonua) starts her dance class with Jeanine, and vice versa, as Victor initiates conversations about sex fantasies with Jeanine in his flat, whilst Jeanine and Synda are still dancing together in Synda’s rehearsal space.
But whilst the production itself attempts to animate the audience’s disbelief in a myriad of ways, the dialogue and its delivery are painstakingly true to life. Jeanine is thirty-one, and she’s at a difficult juncture. Feeling she hasn’t achieved enough for her age, she looks for ways to improve herself and expand her experiences. She tries to be sexually bolder with her (sort of) boyfriend Victor, and she decides to take up ballet lessons with dance teacher Synda. Her relationships with both are complicated. Sometimes they feed her enthusiasm and sometimes they crush it. Many of the conversations are so close to the real thing that it seems near impossible that they should be scripted. McMeekin’s delivery in particular – every hesitation, every stress – paints such a whole character, full of flaws and good intentions. This seems to be Barron’s particular expertise, having created similarly dimensional characters in her previous work, Dance Nation.
The stage (as designed by Emma Bailey) is built like a wide-set puppet show box, with heavy curtains concealing different sets: One is Victor’s flat, with meticulous Muji furniture; another, Synda’s sparse room, with not much more than a yoga mat for decoration. And a third, hidden for most of the story, is Jeanine’s clothes-covered mess of a hoarder’s room. The ever opening and closing curtains, along with all the other quirky production devices, provide a dream-like quality to the story, somehow magnifying the dialogue’s nuance and conviction.
But just when you think the plot has settled into a more conventional rhythm, (slight spoiler coming up, my apologies) the show ends with a children’s ballet recital- like, actual children ballet dancing. But as completely random and unexpected as it is, it makes me inexplicably happy. And that summary might be applied to the entire play: Completely random, but it makes me inexplicably happy.