Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 5 March, 2008

Leonard Roberts has appeared in the fantasy TV series Heroes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Smallville, and now on the even-smaller-ville of the Arts Theatre stage in a different kind of fantasy. Daniel Joshua Rubin’s play imagines a near future in which so many of America’s resources are bent towards “the war of our times” that some low-security prisoners are housed in cages in people’s homes. Roberts glowers from behind bars in the middle of the living room as the young professional couple played by James Flynn and Samantha Wright try to behave humanely towards him but end up grotesquely condescending. The physical presence of the cell also throws scenes of ordinary domesticity and teleworking into a different context, as when Flynn asks on the telephone, “Can I tell you something in private?” without any sense of irony.
Rubin’s play raises a number of unsettling questions about the extent to which individuals are prepared to participate directly in conduct we routinely expect of a state, and how far we go to salve our consciences when we acquiesce in it. (The arsenal of video and audio devices in the room seems implausible, yet outside the theatre we in Britain are the most routinely tech-surveilled population in the world.) Unfortunately, these matters are initiated in a relatively leisurely first half, and dealt with in a rushed second act following the interval-curtain revelation that the couple have been sent the wrong inmate, and instead of evaluating him for parole they must administer a lethal injection. From this point, rivalries, manipulations and prejudices are played out between the trio with a speed and intensity to test our suspension of disbelief. When the climactic jab with the hypodermic was delivered (and I am not revealing who gave it or to whom – it’s that kind of plot), I’m afraid I was not the only one to giggle.
A.C. Wilson directs a couple of decent performances, and a more than decent one from Roberts, but he cannot keep a rein on Rubin’s script as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Nor are matters helped by instances of sloppiness in set and sound design. (As the director of a production long ago in which the same thing happened, I declare with some authority that cell bars should not wobble.) Some fine ideas, ultimately fumbled.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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