Fire Station, Oxford – until 22 December 2018
A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell, the little OFS – a theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett. Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed. “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared” mourns a young remainer, while an older Brexiteer protests: “We’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one.”
That this argument – now mired in technicalities about customs duties – has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years and rarely has. It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers. But for today, it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore, how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the cruel arrogant certainties of youth, and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything pre-millennial. Which does mean everything, from bootcut jeans and The X-Files to Blair, Savile and Morrissey – “everything you grew up with – most of it very offensive, and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground”.
It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though, and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point. Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half, and a double reveal in the second. Which works very well indeed dramatically, so I am not about to spoil it for you. Others will. Watch out.
So just the bare bones: it is set on Christmas Eve. Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again. So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there. The first half , until the last moment, is a monologue in which, endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age, the father imagines seeing her again. It is probably too long a monologue, the play’s one flaw, though Levey handles it well. When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen, not respecting his previous booking rights. The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement, setting the theme.
Which it does, brilliantly: the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a policing of language before feeling, is set against warm, baffled, battered and bereaved parental susceptibility. Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny, occasionally heartbreaking. Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander, that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee. Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it, and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.
And the ending? Well, it’s Christmas. Not easy, not pat, but yes, redemptive.
box office oldfirestation.org.uk to 22 Dec. Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it.