As we took our seats we found the cast of five already on stage, seated on the floor. Two of them had head bowed while the other three looked into our space but by impressive self-control contrived to make eye contact with no audience member. This admirable sang froid actually lasted throughout the 45-50 minute running time, the actors sometimes standing within a metre of the front row.
The set-up is a simple one: five students meet in a college room on 8th November 2016, ostensibly to watch the US Presidential Election. One of them, Sam (Madhulika Murali) remains a dogged election watcher as she stares out at us, the surrogate TV screen, charting and intoning quietly the shock events as Trump begins to forge ahead. The other four seem from the start much too engrossed in their private passions and grudges to have time for Clinton and Trump, and the audience is able to tune in without difficulty to the relationship between the bitterness of the campaign preceding election day and the skirmishes played out in front of us, cleverly un-emphasized in Kimberley Chiu's script though that link is.
I was put in mind of Pieter Bruegel's famous Landscape with Fall of Icarus from 1555 where the mythical, rash Icarus, despite a paternal warning, flies too near the sun with his waxed wings. The wax melting, he plunges into the
Chiu's use of overlapping dialogue echoed the device favoured by Caryl Churchill in Top Girls, which I saw last week. This was quite effective, and, sensibly, not overused. The other employed device in respect of the dialogue was to split the five players into two pairs plus Sam the dedicated election viewer; the pairs remained essentially constant until quite near the end when there was a shuffling of the composition. The efficient lighting from Thomas Surridge switched constantly from pair to pair, leaving the non-featured couple frozen in time and shadow; this was well-conceived by Chiu and director Celine Ng.
Kit (Mary Lobo) is consumed by anger with her boyfriend owing to her perceived sense of imposed injustice and their mutual inability to communicate. 'Is my language not working for you?' she asks. I saw Lobo in the Ayckbourn Confusions in May and I wrote: 'I especially enjoyed the energy of Mary Lobo. She ought to go on to bigger roles in the future'. Those two comments stand. This role was, I think, somewhat bigger, and it sure was much, much angrier! Arthur (Joshua Portway), a strong foil, stands up well to the grenades hurtling his way: at times he boils with frustration, at others adopts a cover of cynicism.
These characters, if a bit one-dimensional (though of course there's a strict limit to the development possible in a short play) are clearly depicted. Rather more hazy is the Shaun (Jack Blowers) and Rori (Beata Kuczynska) relationship, perhaps because their dialogue is more oblique; and the switching away from them to Kit and Arthur seemed more than once to cut them off in full flow.
Blowers mined a little space around him with repeated little steps as the dialogue flowed from him. He has an attractive stage presence, so when there occurred a coup de théâtre that's marvellously well-staged by director and actors (I'll say no more than that, but a collective gasp ran uncontrolled round the audience) which threatened to de-rail him, I was upset! Both he and Rori (played with care by Kuczynska) traded hurt rather than insult, but I found the basis of their misunderstandings somewhat obscure. The drama concludes by Kit and Shaun going at it toe to toe, and it's hereabouts that the dramatist comes up with the wonderfully evocative: "whip out your sword and jump on your steed the moment someone says anything unpleasant!'.
Chiu told me afterwards that this is her first play. This opening night was sold out, an auspicious start, and perhaps with the injection of a slightly stronger narrative and all characters just a little more clearly differentiated, there's every reason to anticipate something interesting, even exciting, from her next venture.