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STATE OF FEAR. Responsibility to … ? at Southwark Playhouse

STATE OF FEAR. Responsibility to ... ?My initial impression, even before the lights went down at the Southwark Playhouse for State of Fear: Responsibility To…? was that this event was rather like preaching to the choir. This intelligent, cultured and open-minded audience was palpably eager to see this response to life in the UK as it is at the moment. Then again, ‘preaching to the choir’ is perhaps true of most, if not all, theatre productions do – the whole point of spending your evening at the theatre is to see something of interest to you.

Proceedings get off to a flying start in Jayne Woodhouse’s The Watchers, in an imaginary totalitarian state, not unlike Airstrip One in George Orwell’s novel 1984, where Sarah (Olivia Onyehara) even has her mobile phone confiscated from her, because of the political protests her mother (Madeleine Bowyer) participated in. Amusingly, her movements can no longer be tracked, precisely because she has no phone on her person. It’s not the only laughable point in the narrative, which suffers from being so severe in its depiction of a horrifying dystopia that one wonders whether it would have been easier for the authorities to annihilate the human race altogether.

Siân Rowland’s Life Sentence picks up on this idea of governmental lunacy more sensibly. A single mother (Victoria Porter) is musing on, amongst other things, the religious radicalisation of her son Daniel. The young man was arrested early in the early stages of his indoctrination. Mum’s response was acerbic, contending that if every bearded guy were to be arrested, a considerable portion of the population of Shoreditch would be in custody. ‘Life Sentence’ was the most poignant play of the night – there’s something very touching about a mother’s genuine and unbroken love for her son, no matter what.

You know that speech by Martin Niemöller – the one that begins, ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist’ and ends with, ‘Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.’ It’s what I thought of during Mai Leh Dinh’s Season’s Greetings, as a Christmas house party continues despite the persistent knocking of people outside clearly in need of emergency assistance.

But, goodness me, the dialogue sounded so incredibly forced to make the party hosts and guests even consider that something awful has happened in the local area. It lacked credibility. People just don’t turn on a talk radio station in the middle of a Christmas party because they’ve run out of things to talk about. Further, when they do have something to say, the characters at the party talk over one another too much. While it’s incredibly realistic to depict more than one conversation going on at the same time at a party, to see it staged didn’t work for me. It was like trying to listen to two people talk at once and not actually understanding very much from either person.

Thankfully, there were four other short plays that were nothing short of sublime. Rob Johnston’s Just Like Me skilfully explored the possibilities that can happen when someone is thoroughly hoodwinked, with disastrous consequences for the honest man. Tom Powell’s ‘The Fabulous Derek Alfrick’ does the same, but from a different perspective. Narrated by Samuel Lawrence and Venetia Twigg, the duo immediately established a strong rapport with the audience, even if they came across as overly eager and bouncy PR officers for the far right. Without giving too much away, this play exposes the danger of extrapolating one person’s appalling personal experience to the rest of the general population, as certain sections of the media have sometimes been accused of doing, asserting that if anyone at all does ‘X’ then ‘Y’ will happen because that’s what happened to so-and-so. It’s a hoot.

David Bottomley’s Britain for Breakfast, meanwhile, has survivors (played by Andres Ortiz and Fayez Bakhsh) of an attempt by Syrians to reach, um, Britain in time for breakfast, completely turn the tables on a detective inspector (Esme Sears). It manages to be both harrowing and hilarious, as the inspector’s tick-box diligence is eventually used against her. I couldn’t help but guffaw at the policewoman not wanting to cause ‘unnecessary stress’ to her interviewees. When their response came, I was close to crying with laughter. Unnecessary stress? They came to Britain to get away from the so-called ‘Islamic State’! Was cracking up an appropriate response? More food for thought, that one.

Daniel Segeth’s Walruses contained probably the most memorable (if not entirely original) line of the evening. “Never assume,” the chief executive of a charity (Andrew McDonald) tells his subordinate Myles (Nicholas Clarke). “You make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” It seemed to me to be the most all-encompassing play of the evening, looking much more at the bigger picture than simply an individual story, and closer to how I had expected an evening of this nature would present hard-hitting and pertinent issues affecting us all.

There are no easy solutions to the themes raised in this broad range of plays. The ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’ approach of ‘The Watchers’ may not be worth it in the world of Walruses, where charities, governments (plural, as the chief executive was keen to point out) and the general public are in support of a policy that will ultimately cost lives.

As I say, some of the ideas presented over the course of the evening were closer to silly than scary, but in any event, there is significant potential in the budding playwrights whose works have been showcased. Speaking of political interference in people’s lives, it does not appear that apparent cuts in the arts budget have had any impact on the quality of theatre playwriting. I have no qualms with theatre that inspires strong debate. I am, however, a strong believer in the notion that theatre should, above all, entertain. State of Fear: Responsibility To…? succeeds on both fronts. Even if the future for society at large (as presented here) looks disappointing, the future of British theatre is looking vibrant.
4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Seven new plays by emerging playwrights in response to the current political climate in the UK. ’State of Fear. Responsibilty to…?’ explores society’s challenges, prejudices, perspectives and uncertainties, because we believe theatre should ask questions and spark debate. Refugee crisis? EU Referendum? Islamophobia? Immigration? Whose opinions do we have and who do we trust?

Having received over 200 submissions by writers from all over the UK, Time Zone Theatre have selected seven original plays which were performed at Southwark Playhouse. An evening of new writing, directed and performed by some of London’s most exciting talent.

Britain for Breakfast by David Bottomley
Two of only six survivors of an inflatable raft launched from Syria are interviewed by a British police inspector. She tries to maintain control, but by the end of their harrowing stories, who is more traumatised? How do you ever heal the real cost of human trafficking?

Walruses by Daniel Segeth
Myles is seeking answers. As the major world powers cut-off aid to Africa, Myles confronts an executive at the charity he works for. A conversation that will change his world forever.

The Fabulous Derek Alfrick by Tom Powell
Derek Alfrick is a person. And like you, he’s sometimes nice. Maybe he’s nicer than you. No, he’s definitely nicer than you. One day, Mr. Alfrick has a spectacular moment of kindness. Weakness. And he gets exactly what he deserves. Poor Derek.

The Watchers by Jayne Woodhouse
In a dystopian near-future, Sarah is leading a campaign of violent action against an oppressive regime. The play follows the path from apathy to extremism through one young woman’s response to the pressures of her time.

Just Like Me by Rob Johnston
Two strangers meet on the street. One intends to connect. The other is keen to remain invisible. Evasion piles on denial as the fear of being noticed becomes ever more absurd, and the urge to connect turns increasingly sinister.

Life Sentence by Siân Rowland
While thousands struggle to gain entry to Europe, some will sacrifice everything to leave the comfort of home behind. A mother is in ruin as the child she once knew leaves her with nothing but the stigma of his destination. Love, loss, guilt…and the will to forgive?

Season’s Greetings by Mai Le Dinh
A group of friends are enjoying their Christmas break by the sea, away from the hustle and bustle of London town, when they find themselves being interrupted by whirling helicopters and a knock on the door as a refugee boat washes ashore. Why didn’t they stop at the house down the street?

Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD
18th October 2015, 7pm (running time: 2 hours including an interval)
For more information please visit www.timezonetheatre.com

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