It is impossible to get too spooked by anything that happens in Jailbirds: time and again, the momentary (and deliberate) on-stage presence of director Luke Culloty, guiding and realigning, is a reminder that this is stagecraft. As tends to be the case with futuristic shows, not everything quite adds up – the sound of birds tweeting can be clearly heard as the audience continues to file in, only for that same audience to be told that proceedings take place a few miles underground. Which is it? Are there birds outside or is the room in which the show is set deeper than deep?
The deepest artificial point on the planet to date is 12,262 metres deep – just over 7.6 miles – though there are no buildings that deep underground. No matter: along with everyone else, I’ve suspended disbelief and entered into this slightly bizarre world. The show starts with a techno-beat, which, pointedly, nobody dances to. Moira (Stella Richt) tells Heath Dane (Molly Jones) that she rather enjoyed the music, but her manner is so nonchalant one wonders if she is doing that very British thing of diplomatic lying to save face.
To state who Moira ‘really’ is would be too much of a spoiler, though it is clear she is working in collaboration with Bheur (Kirsty Terry) on what appears to be a series of experiments on Dane, as part of an assessment to gauge Dane’s mental wellbeing. Quite why it has been determined that it would take five days to work out that a serial killer (by Dane’s own admission) is not altogether there was lost on me, a position which Officer Oml (Evangelina Burton) eventually agreed with, calling an end to proceedings early, despite strong protests from Moira. Completing the set of on-stage characters, who never leave the stage, standing and facing upstage when not involved in a scene, is Guard Piskon (Fred Woodley Evans). The character makes the best of, well, guard duties.
Some subtle twists in the story add depth to the performance, though the character development of Moira is somewhat predictable – mild-mannered to the point where (from my back-row vantage point, at least) it was occasionally difficult to hear what she was saying, only to suddenly find some inner courage from somewhere, stand her ground and assert herself. But as Dane points out in a late scene, there’s something not quite right about Moira, who takes to sleeping in prison conditions without even so much as a pillow like a duck to water, and consumes prison food, stodgy as it is, without comment let alone complaint.
Steadily paced, the show raises questions about where real power lies in a world increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence. But when Bheur suggests to Officer Oml that they “stand on the threshold of history”, it would have been nice for her to have elaborated on to why this would be so, and likewise for Oml to have explained her reasoning, rather than her terse ‘because I said so’ approach. It’s not as if Moira and Bheur are prepubescent children.
I suppose plays like this are meant to be thought-provoking, even to the point of raising more questions than it answers. Not always easy viewing to say the least, this is an intriguing and thoughtful production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Moira and Bheur are miles beneath ground, in a maximum-security prison. They have a job to do. They have to assess the mental health of a serial killer only to find she is dissecting them.
Stella Richt – Moira
Molly Jones – Heath
Kirsty Marie Terry – Bheur
Evangelina Burton – Officer Oml
Fred Woodley Evans – Guard Piskon
Luke Culloty – Director
Venue: Etcetera Theatre
Dates: 3–8 December 2018
Time: 19:00 (1hr)