Underexposed Theatre at Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ
to April 16, 2018
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
Relationships and love. These, not satellites or legislative chambers or oilfields, will be the battlegrounds of the 21st century. Everything else is detail.
All our worries about gender fluidity, violent impulses, a lack of understanding and a world constantly mediated through technology and an ever growing number of interfaces will come down to our ability to relate to each other and connect as people.
And that feels like the common and vital thread in the presentation of new writing by Islington based Underexposed Theatre in their current run at The Old Red Lion in Islington, in which they, as they state in their mission statement, 'explore and challenge the overlooked stereotypes that exist in our society.'
There are a number of plays that poke gentle fun at post (and pre?) truth America, Gun Jr, affably taking aim (that one was intended) at the Gun Culture. It is fun and presents us with the not unheard of scenario of a boy who feels out of place in a gun-toting red blooded American family and yearns to be free to leave home and exercise his creativity being a chef in Paris. It is enjoyable, with Stephen Riddle's energy driving the comic value and the hyperbolically fun nonsense of Trump-voting America to its highest level and most ridiculous as the broken hearted Mr Gun trying to convince his son to follow in the family tradition.
And although brighter minds than mine continue to ask if we have reached an age that is the end of satire, I don't think the problem is the jokes we're writing. I think it's the fact that we feel out of targets. So we turn to the few that are left and presenting themselves as the easiest left to ridicule, the left. Although Joe Starzyk tries with For The Love of Noodles to capture the craven ludicrous efforts of one hippy dippy couple to appear accepting of their daughter's choice of partner, it already begins to feel stiff and a little done by the time the punchline (aforesaid choice of partner) walks on stage.
The piece that does manage to incisively present us with a poised and beautifully balanced portrait of the smug middle class is Wholefoods by Charles Liepart. Set in the very gentrified location of a brownstone in Brooklyn, it is a subtly written dialogue between a young twentysomething coming from the gym via the titular organic hipster fave retailer and her young black neighbour. Although it begins in those very cliched parameters, both Sadie Pepperell, playing the Nora Helmer-like wife with a cagey sense of frustration and an utterly convincing sense of yearning, and her philosophical neighbour Malcolm present through a deftly constructed chemistry between them, a tension and a pathos for a woman who is as trapped as she appears to be privileged.
The second half really pulls us right into the moral heart of the stage though, with Gabrielle Curtis' and Clare Langford's The Petal and The Orchid confronting us uncomfortably with a value judgement between the sexual victimhood and white privilege, boxing us into an impossibly uncomfortable choice from which, as in today's so easily simplified headlines, there are no easy answers. Curtis and Rina Mahoney as the manager of a charity that works to improve the lot of vulnerable women in third world countries give utterly enthralling performances that draw us in for a rivetingly bitter exchange.
One of the cleverest gems of the night though was a gentle comedy written by Charlotte Stanton called The Pit and The Pretender, in which an apparently bitter and burnt out, whiskey swigging writer comes onto a radio show to promote his new book, agreeing to an interview by someone with whom he has history. Nick Pearse, and his commanding and energetic presence on stage make a welcome return to Underexposed and again, the chemistry between him and the charismatic Texan actor Rachel Scurlock (playing radio host Daphne) is pure magic. There is an intelligent and refreshingly heartwarming twist at the end that wraps itself into the audience's hearts.
Oddly enough for a world so culturally focused on the Trump's bombastic America these days, this night of theatre hits its highest points when it's not aiming at perhaps the most bigly target in the world right now. Theo Hristov's Coming To America is gut wrenching and full of conviction and the sledgehammer like blows it lands against the robotically bureaucratic Immigration officer denying the protagonist a visa to bury his mother with Kafkaesque abstraction. But it lacks the humanity and subtlety of Richard Woulfe's delicately gentle piece A La Carte, a meeting between a grieving man played with an intriguing and pathos inducing angst by Chris Pybus, and the man with whom his recently deceased husband had been having a longstanding affair. The waves of grief and the chemistry between Pybus and Edwin Flay make this piece a haunting contemplation of loss, desire and the attempt to fill the emptiness of the heart.
Underexposed's night of relationship-themed pieces and the explorations at the margins and the in-between spaces of life is truly a compelling celebration that feels very now, is wonderfully smart and brimming with a well judged sense of humour, albeit sometimes a dark one.
See it at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington and later on in the year on 8 July at the Southwark Playhouse.