Bush Theatre, London – until 21 January 2023
“It could be worse” observes Baby, one of the pair of Irish sisters who open and close Margaret Perry’s richly enjoyable new play, as she contemplates their less-than-ideal lives; that statement applies equally to the existences of the other four women whose frustrations, tragedies and eccentricities inform this delightful, unruly tragicomedy. Their gender apart, the other thing that connects this mismatched sextet is their dissatisfaction with their place in the world, specifically contemporary London, although it could be any impersonal major city: each of them feels they could, and should, be doing better, and one of the interesting, humane and frequently laugh-out-loud funny things about Perry’s script is the way that these women tackle their individual plights.
Another thing they have in common is a pyramid selling scheme, the commercial arm of an essential oils company called Paradise (the play’s title is the name of the corporation’s annual weekend-long seminar, an event described with the sort of fervour some people reserve for Christmas, Mardi Gras or a Royal wedding), which is how they all initially meet.
Perry is clearly fascinated by the cult-like aspect of some of these schemes and weaves that into a complex but accessible tapestry that also encompasses female empowerment, sisterhood (of both the familial and non-familial kind), loss, the essence of sleep, and how the relationship between siblings can be surprisingly toxic even as they are supportive and loving. It paints an engaging picture of bodies adrift in a big city, each with an agenda but not necessarily much self awareness.
If it sounds a bit random and a lot to take in, well, it is, but it’s also rollicking good fun. Director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart matches the scattershot brilliance of Perry’s text with a staging that hurls everything at the wall: there’s music, physical comedy, some over-elaborate scene changes, a few bizarre dramatic and visual non sequiturs …but the theatrical miracle of it all is how much of it sticks.
Each character is so exquisitely drawn (and, in most cases, indelibly flawed) that it’s impossible not to care, even when some of the behaviour exhibited is less than admirable. The writing is impressive: frank, funny, and at times compellingly weird. Perry has a tremendous gift for imparting information between the lines of dialogue, such as in a glorious scene where needy, strange yet relatable Laurie (Rakhee Thakrar in a performance of genuine comic genius) turns up to a party of an old high school acquaintance who clearly has no idea who she is. It’s blissfully, uncomfortably funny, and all the more amusing because it’s played with a lot of truth but just slightly off kilter from realism.
Act one is pretty much perfect and the second act sets off at a similarly terrific level, with the women at the Paradise Now event, their reactions ranging hilariously from hysteria to disbelief as touchy-feely mutual support swiftly devolves into something a lot less wholesome, albeit way more amusing for us in the audience. Revelations pop, perhaps a little too conveniently, a major deception is uncovered, and it all proves as gripping as it’s funny.
It’s a shame then that the overlong second half loses its way a bit, meandering down a couple of dead ends plot wise, and, frustratingly, not giving closure to the story arc of arguably the most interesting character (Thakrar’s inspired Laurie). It’s never less than watchable though, which is due in no small part to the cast, each of whom inhabits her/their characters with utter conviction.
Michele Moran draws a tender, truthful portrait of depressive middle aged Gabriel, who blossoms from dowdy homebody to determined but kind go-getter as her pyramid selling dream seems to take off, while Carmel Winters invests her sister Baby with a riveting combination of whimsy and watchful stoicism. Ayoola Smart is beguiling and multi-layered as youthful would-be TV presenter Carla, whose desire to succeed proves motivated as much by spite and revenge as anything more aspirational. Annabel Baldwin is tremendous – sexy and likeable – as the striving dancer Carla falls in love with (and they are a truly wonderful dancer).
The comedy gold, but with an undertow of real melancholy, is provided by the astonishing Ms Thakrar, who takes an unconventional character and mines her for every last ounce of irresistible peculiarity and pathos, and the equally magnificent Shazna Nicholls, who plays Alex, the Paradise recruiter and lynchpin, with the clenched, ingratiating ferocity of a woman who knows that, if she stops talking and smiling, she’ll probably start screaming and be unable to stop. The moment near the top of act two where she realises that her standing within the company has been bested by one of her own recruits is comedy acting of the highest order.
If ultimately Paradise Now! turns out to be slightly less than the sum of its parts, it’s still a tangy, ambitious, thoroughly engrossing piece. Woodcock-Stewart’s superb production moves at a hell of a pace, and the performances nudge the whole gorgeous enterprise into the realm of the unmissable. I liked it enormously.