WHAT happens when you take six leading British playwrights, offer each of them a 30-minute breakfast slot at the Traverse, and ask them to produce a rapid, spontaneous, script-in-hand response to the way we live now?
GENTRIFICATION: A DIALOGUE WITH MY NEIGHBOUR HENRY ****
THE BASEMENT FLAT ****
To judge by the first three plays in the Traverse series The World Is Too Much: Theatre For Breakfast, the answer is an almost frightening level of consensus about the deepest fears of middle-class Britain in our time. There are already three plays in the main Traverse Festival season which feature couples striving for a domestic ideal of family bliss, only to find it shattered by forces beyond their control. And now, Enda Walsh and Rona Munro add two more.
In Walsh’s Gentrification: A Dialogue With My Neighbour Henry, something terrible has happened in the ordinary London street where Henry lives with his lovely partner and their perfect little daughter, Ada. Ordinary social tension over different lifestyles and income levels has erupted into something more political, targeted and sinister: middle-class children are being taken and held hostage until their families return the streets to the local people who once owned them.
What makes Walsh’s play exceptional, though, is his understanding of the mixture of anger and yearning that drives Henry, the angry neighbour, beautifully played by Keith Fleming in Roxana Silbert’s production. Time and again, he makes his neighbour (wryly called Enda) repeat the story of the idyllic sunlit breakfast he and his family were enjoying just before the kidnap, as if it were some kind of modern fairytale – which, perhaps, is exactly what it is.
Munro’s The Basement Flat features Fiona and Stephen, whose domestic life, if it ever was idyllic, is rapidly shading into a horror-movie nightmare. In a globally-warmed London full of lush vegetation, “hot, dirty rain”, creeping fungus and feral teenagers, they cower in the rented basement flat of the house they once owned but have had to sell, too frightened even to search for their teenage daughter, who seems to be living somewhere in the jungly garden.
Beautifully played by Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, the stars of the Traverse hit Midsummer, The Basement Flat offers an unforgettable and unsettling tragi-comic collision between ordinary sitcom bickering and a grotesquely catastrophic social breakdown. The play is surreal, but also frighteningly close to what could be our daily reality a couple of decades down the line.
Escaping the besieged domestic scene we come to Simon Stephens’s Heaven, a strange encounter in a airport between a young man called Sean and a strange ancient mariner of a figure who stops him on the concourse and starts questioning his intentions, his morals and his motives.
Heaven is less dramatically intense and well-resolved than the other two plays, and ends with a weird rendition of the mind-bending Talking Heads song Heaven. But in its vision of a young man in flight from his stifling domestic idyll, and of a figure from the past who both challenges and encourages him, it also seems to contain more thrilling possibilities.
It’s performed with great lightness of touch by David Gallacher and Sandy Grierson, in a production by Cheryl Martin that can only grow as the season progresses.
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