I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this play if I’m being totally honest. The blurb was:
“Fed up of fake news, Theresa Mayhem, Farage and Trump? Jean is. Jean is really, really fed up. Jean has a plan…be more like Jean.”
And the answer is: yes. I was fed up with all of these things. Fed up to the gunwales. And yet the publicity bumf seemed to offer me a cold collation of more of the above. Was I going to spend St Patrick’ night being fed reheated Brexit leftovers?
No, as it happens.
First I need to praise the director, Peter Hynds: a cast member was forced to miss the first night due to illness. The director took his place and had it not been for him having the script in hand for certain scenes I wouldn’t have suspected any substitution. Bravo.
The first act of the play seems, in isolation, to play more as a straightforward political satire. The protagonist, Jean (played by Sarah Lewis), loses her job as a research chemist when Brexit strikes and the pharmaceutical company that employs her choses to relocate to Europe. Her husband Tom (Robert Felstead) is forced to become the main breadwinner as a result.
While at home, alone, job searching, Jean is enraged by the various news reports, radio shows and other vox pops (embodied by Amy Westwood, Ella Thomas, Jane Dale, Colin Doubleday and Peter Hynds) in the media. They only reinforce her opinion that society is being derailed by an idiot minority who hate qualified ‘experts’ like herself.
So far, so angry. There was plenty of pleasing and relatively barbed parody, but the wheel failed to be reinvented. The first act left me hoping for more from the second.
That said I loved the “Ink” song-and-dance number at the end of the first act. I’d go as far to say that it’s the best song I’ve ever heard about the subject of ink. I’m not being sarcastic; the second this appears on iTunes I’m having it.
But the second act soon threw the first into sharp relief. Jean takes a job at an ink manufacturing company. The power of the press is vicariously hers. A chance call to her ex-employer means that an opportunity to right the perceived wrong presents itself. A Greek-style tragedy is set in motion.
The second act is where the play bites. It wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t bought the relationship between Jean and Tom. Theirs is a playful but credible domestic dynmic. Sarah Lewis is painfully believable as Jean, the heart of the marriage, and Robert Falstead as Tom, the steadying anchor. He gets his definitive scene, wordlessly cradling a panda glove puppet, the avatar to his melancholy, and she ends the play as she began it in flashback: addled and raw; snarling like an animal; lost in anguish.
The intimacy of the traverse staging of the play, with the audience often only inches away from the players, make these scenes almost unbearable.
The end result is a play that you carry away with you, like a weight. The Shoebox has staged another play that reneges, thankfully, on its deliberately false promises and denies expectation.
Tickets for Saturday’s matinee of Eugenia are still available at the Shoebox Theatre:
Reviewed by Ben Thomas