Lion & Unicorn Theatre – until 22 September 2019
How deep are the internal divisions in British society post-Brexit, and is it possible that the anger erupting on the streets around Westminster every day could escalate to the point of civil war? That is the question underpinning James Lewis and Alexander Knott’s dystopian new play, At Last, which literally had me pinned to my seat with anxiety at times.
Lewis and Knott imagine an England that has had ten years of far-right rule and which, after an unspecified event in Hackney ten years ago, has imposed such draconian security laws that all freedoms have effectively been removed.
Clearly drawing on current human rights violations in China, Turkey, Ukraine and the Middle East, the play focuses on London where, behind a veneer of law and order, there is totalitarian rule. Citizens are either good or bad. Random people are being disappeared in the night from their homes and kids are arrested for losing their identity cards. Protest and public order misdemeanours lead to mass containment and humiliation.
At Last is driven by the first-person testimonies of seven characters, each complete in their own right. Two brothers find themselves on opposing sides of the political divide as their mother desperately tries to safeguard and reconcile them; a young activist fired with a joyful rage by her mother’s murder is galvanised into dangerous actions by the shooting of her dog; a magistrate who has hidden behind the law finds himself questioning it; an accountant searches the spreadsheets detailing human capital, for his missing husband’s name; and a barrister walks among them, collating their stories for the truth and reconciliation process that follows.
Is it a viable scenario? My older companion saw echoes from dramas of the 1960s in the first half and was ambivalent on that, but we were in the Cold War then so it makes sense that a new generation watching today’s ferment would have the same response and, interestingly, draw the conclusion that little changes.
For me, the writing in At Last is fresh and lively. The first act, which runs an hour, would benefit from losing ten minutes, but the voices are interesting and distinctive. The high energy cast – David Angland, Anthony Fagan, Michael Faulkner, Malcolm Jeffries, Demelza O’Sullivan, Melissa Phillips and Gemma Wray – is excellent. The lighting is limited on the small stage of The Lion and Unicorn so it was too dark at times, but under David Brady’s direction (with Jess Barton) – which upped the ante in the shorter second half – it’s a great watch.