The latest offering from Leeds University’s Junk Theatre, headed by George Manson, is as special as promised, presenting a fantastic yet harrowing one-act comedy that leaves its audience both amused and despondent at the perhaps all too possible post-apocalyptic society Manson’s play situates.
Entering the Alec Clegg theatre to the singular stoic stare of Jim (John Chavasse) has us questioning and facing ourselves from the very start of a play which ultimately makes us despair at the state of our own humanity, as well as that of our not-too-distant future. The play centres upon an elderly couple, Jim and Valerie (Anna Van Miert), hosting a dinner party for the considerably younger pairing of Greg (Joe Woodley) and Fiona (Olivia Moon) in order to keep in their advantageous favour within this dwindling community. Whilst we never gain access outside of this social scene, we increasingly learn about the tensions and hardships they face. From food provisions, to their decaying environment, to the killer disease that will inevitably take them all, we become progressively aware of these threats as the characters do. The dinner party itself starts off as pleasant but awkward enough, superbly delivered by the cast, with Jim and Valerie particularly recounting their past lives and memories, unable to really exist within the present let alone consider their essentially uncertain future. Before dinner is even served, however, there is a descent into verbal and physical sparring which captures both the comedy and stress of the play.
This rising conflict is particularly felt and delivered by the play’s leading women. They expertly build it up from mere looks (served particularly well by Moon), often straight to us in the audience, to slights and digs until finally Valerie launches herself onto Fiona, an act which Van Miert renders hilariously and dramatically. Throughout the play, Van Miert’s Valerie provides some often much needed comic relief, yet also evokes painful sympathy as we become increasingly apparent of her continual loss, particularly that of her own family, with two absent children. Their presence at times can be felt within Greg and Fiona themselves, and in her husband who is physically and mentally deteriorating before her eyes, whether he catches the fatal sickness plaguing society or not. It is particularly Van Miert’s comedic timing which captures the audience, made all the more effective as it is offset by Moon’s initially haughty, dignified presence which is deftly developed as her own loss is revealed. The stark contrast between the two women speaks to issues of gender, class and generational gaps, oddly familiar in a world beyond our own.
The play arguably gets off to a slow start with Jim recounting a long story from his menial work, yet Chavasse manages to capture the audience; it is as though he is only speaking to us rather than his wife, in such a way that delicately draws us in. The various repetitions of this story amongst other familial memories, as the dinner party itself commences, does not leave us as disinterested as their guests, but instead alerts us to the couple’s inevitable demise into the past itself that they cherish so dearly. Chavasse offers a subtle yet intense rendering of this, delivering cutting moments, such as only being able to remember the feelings his daughter inspired in him rather than her actual being, which he further holds through his moments of silence and slowness, again often comically relieved. Just as the guests are hungry for their dinner, these moments of stillness leave us hungry for more. Woodley’s Greg also employs this level of subtly which makes his final, panicked concern for his wife and her health all the more tender.
By the end of the play we are simply left with the pervasive ticking of the clock that welcomed us into the theatre, reminding not just the characters of their own impending fate, but us of ours, too. It is with this final warning that Manson ultimately forces us to face up to our own actions and our own world, concluding a bizarrely funny- yet grim- play. Let’s hope this future is not realised too soon so we can instead look forward to seeing what Junk Theatre deliver next.