Don’t. Make. Tea.

Rob Drummond
Birds of Paradise
Soho Theatre

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Gillian Dean as Chris Credit: Andy Catlin
Neil John Gibson as Ralph with Emery Hunter on screen Credit: Andy Catlin
Richard Conlon as Able Credit: Andy Catlin
Neil John Gibson as Ralph and Gillian Dean as Chris Credit: Andy Catlin
Neil John Gibson as Ralph and Gillian Dean as Chris Credit: Andy Catlin

Scottish theatre company Birds of Paradise is touring its deliciously dark comedy, Don’t. Make. Tea.

Writer Rob Drummond’s world is set just a step away from our own in 2037 where policy transformations have created ‘Accessible Britain’ and those living with disabilities get all the equipment they need free of charge from the Department.

The now 43-year-old former police detective Chris has oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition which increasingly limits her vision and mobility and can cause hallucinations. Proud and independent but unable to continue working, she claimed benefits which have now been frozen leaving her broke and despondent.

She has no choice but to have a WorkPay capability assessment to unfreeze her only source of income. As it progresses, more is revealed about Chris’s condition and frame of mind, and more sinister shadows fall over the process and super-friendly Ralph from the Department, a true poster boy for Accessible Britain.

What disadvantages Chris is the scourge of our times: a computerised system which has no bandwidth for nuance, pushing everyone into one-size-fits-all boxes for ease of processing. Under the aegis of Accessible Britain, the algorithms aren’t assessing Chris for what she can't do but what she can, with a view to offering her a job suitable for her point score out of ten before the day is out.

The first act is packed with witty, often sharp dialogue. Respite comes from Chris holding onto hope with gently heart-tugging moments and the non-stop audio description delivered by the quasi-omniscient Able, a high-tech gizmo whose AI allows it to proactively comment and narrate, becoming an additional member of the cast.

Director Robert Softley Gale builds the tension to a crescendo, with Chris being demeaned and cornered by the compassionless system and pushed over the edge of reason into desperate measures.

Picking up the action where it left off, Drummond provides a deftly designed, chaotic second half, building delightfully to a frenetic pace by Softley Gale. The action takes one whacky turn and then another, and then even another, as Chris hallucinates, imagination and reality clashing in an hilarious, dark fantasy-sitcom.

In Don’t. Make. Tea., Drummond covers a lot of ground and raises a lot of questions without ever labouring a point. It could be argued there are too many points, but when it comes to the operation of a Welfare State, the landscape is a complex one inhabited by many stakeholders harbouring a good deal of mutual distrust.

Gillian Dean gives a sterling performance as Chris, caught in an inescapable Catch-22-style cycle, her strings pulled by an unjustly rigged system through the rule-abiding, tagline-spewing Ralph, made hugely likeable by Neil John Gibson. Richard Conlon is terrific as Able, and with him in strong support is Emery Hunter.

Robert Softley Gale navigates the story clearly through this contemporary satire-thriller-comedy with a balanced hand, the inventively accessible staging proving a virtue both in moments of high tension and farce. Never mind tea, champagne for this sparkling comedy.

Don’t. Make. Tea. runs at Soho Theatre, London until 6 April then visits The Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Cumbernauld Theatre Cumbernauld and Ffwrnes Theatre, Llanelli.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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