Hampstead Theatre, London – until 22 July 2017
WHEN SHOCK BECOMES A SALES PITCH
There are three acts: the first long, expressing an enervatingly pointless world and ending in a sharp shock. The second is competitively cynical and rises to another kind of shock, the sort with disgust in it. The last is shorter still, offering a nicely vicious resolution. Some characters in the first act return as new but related people; others as their psychologically damaged selves, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere . This play won Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins a Pulitzer last year: it is clever and angry, though its rage is overlaid with a detachment reminiscent of Neil Simon: a sense of the author standing back with “Lord, what fools these mortals be” rather than suffering alongside them.
It is also, in its theme, horribly topical when Britain has just suffered four murderous shocks and must accept that we may see parallels to the devil’s-dance of aftermath that this play demonstrates. For Jacobs-Jenkins’ theme is “the commodification of the witness or victim: the marketability of the survivor-story. We do not initially know this: the first scenes, set in the junior assistants’ cubicles of a glossy magazine office , are intermittently funny, dense with embittered office banter by a group of millennials. They seem to be focusing on quite other things. Perhaps generational rivalry – Kae Alexander is appositely recognizable as the fashion-blogging, brittle Kendra ranting against bed-blocking babyboomers; so is Colin Morgan as Dean, who yearns to get the hell out and pen a memoir of his so far uneventful life. Bayo Gbadamosi as the still younger intern looks on, and is darkly suspected of wanting to get their jobs. Fury rises further in the young at the news that an invisible older writer is getting the gig of doing a profile of a dead pop star of their era. Meanwhile a comparative veteran fact-checker has a sort of existential breakdown, and the unpopular office geek dashes through, glaring.
The point, nicely made, is that in this ‘glamorous’ job, all the interesting power stuff is always happening in another room. We all remember the feeling.
Then comes the disaster. Never mind what. The succeeding acts move us by stages from New York to LA, from real fear and facts to the stage where it matters more who gets their account in print most lucratively, and whether there’s a mini-series in it. And, indeed, how much the publishing industry cares who was actually in the room, once “great angles” , “personal catharsis” and “beautifully written” accounts are weighed up.
This distortion happens. There is no point hoping that right now, out in our own city, there are not publishers and film-makers sniffing with careful, hopeful tact and chequebooks around the survivors of Grenfell Tower and the London and Manchester attacks.
Michael Longhurst’s production is not quite perfect, or not yet. Kendra’s brittle lines in the first act sometimes defy full comprehensibity to the untuned ear, though Kae Alexander gets the hair-flicking horror of her character absolutely pat. Some scenes could be trimmed down. But it is fascinating and timely, and sometimes horribly funny (the IT guy in the final scene is pure joy). And of the performances, Bo Poraj’s and and Morgan’s in particular stand out as fully-inhabited and memorably troubling. Not every survivor has a story he wants to tell in public, or should be encouraged to.