It is said that if you put a frog in a saucepan of cold water and gently heat the water the frog will seem quite happy, as you gradually increase the heat it will not notice until to late it finds itself unable to jump out and is boiled alive. Although several nineteenth-century scientists reported experimental evidence, it may not actually be true and I hope no one ever tries it now, but it makes an excellent metaphor for the way in which people do not perceive what is slowly happening around them until it is too late. That is what this play is about.
In recent years we have seen a rapid escalation in the number of new laws introduced to control our society, mainly giving 'the fight against terrorism' as the reason for their introduction. Steven Bloomer tips that just a little further in his play set in a police station cell with one-way-mirror walls in which the temperature is rising and which seems to be closing in on its occupants. Those on the other side of the mirror make the judgement on the people the police bring in but who are they? Is it the audience which this play also arraigns for being like the metaphorical frogs?
Director Alex Hassell and designer Ed Mayhew have mounted it very simply in the round on a white stage cloth on which rows of white boards printed with images of furniture and props are laid. The audience help to fit them together to become the objects on them, and so made tokenly complicit in what goes on. White boiler suits printed with images of clothing hanging on a rack are put on by the cast in front of the audience.
The first prisoner brought in is Mark (Jethro Skinner), arrested for impersonating a police officer, who has organised a protest picnic in Parliament Square with everyone in fancy dress. A real policeman (Colin Hurley) tries to interview him. He is joined by South-Asian second generation immigrant George (Paul Sharma) who is dressed as Jesus Christ though, since his false beard has been confiscated, everyone thinks he is supposed to be Ghandi. A third prisoner is another policeman, Tom (John Trindle), and there is also a sergeant who is in charge of the nick.
This is a society where terrorism is defined as 'any crime conducted for a political purpose' when the question for the police is 'not should we use violence but when?'. The police no longer play 'good cop, bad cop'; they are all good cops, but good cops can hit people in the face. It is a world where people who 'used to obey the rule of law now obey the rules of lawyers' and a policeman has killed a fourteen-year old called Mahomet.
It is played at speed with no loss of articulacy by its excellent cast, who share roles with an alternate cast in different combinations through the run. There are moments where it could be tighter but they possibly help the slow 'warming up' effect. ..
What begins as a surreal comedy turns into a picture of the impotence of leftist peaceful protest, the demonstrator who does nothing, of what can make someone turn to terrorism, of the violence beneath the skin, of how dissent can be appropriated by authority as the carnival that's going on outside peaks with a concert by the Rolling Stones. Steve Bloomer isn't writing about the future, this is an alarm call, the performance itself a metaphor as those seated on all four sides ignore the requests for help from the prisoners they can see on the other side of those imagined one-way mirrors.
Some of the performances are being followed by talks and debates with guest speakers focusing on liberty, legislation and protest in the UK. They are free and available to all: you don't have to have a ticket for that night's show.
Run ends 2nd October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton