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Switch Triptych

Adriano Shaplin
The Riot Group
Soho Theatre
(2005)

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Switch Triptych is one of the first Edinburgh shows of 2005 to transfer to London. It comes with a good recommendation, having won a Fringe First at the start of the festival.

Its real strength is in Adriano Shaplin's remarkable writing, which is delivered at machine gun pace by a cast of five.

The action takes place in a New York telephone exchange at a historical cusp in 1919. This is run along unorthodox lines as alcohol is liberally splashed around as calls are answered and, in order to get a job, the female recruits are measured (literally) by a manager using the diligence of a tailor.

The office character is Lucille, a mouthy Italian-American who dresses in widow's weeds, although all indications are that these may be an affectation. Swilling wine and hooch, she rails against anything and everything with poetic glee in two different languages. Stephanie Viola delivers several gloriously rapid monologues that subtly uncover the pressures that multicultural New York faces with its numerous fighting religions and peoples.

Her foil is Sarah Sanford's quiet Philippa, easily led and squiffy on no more than a sniff of bootleg gin.

This pair operate the switchboards as well as a racket that brings in much-needed cash by offering customers to businessmen. They also play merry hell with their two touchy male supervisors, played by Paul Schnabel and Drew Friedman.

Anarchy is in the air from two different sources. A new employee has arrived, Englishwoman June, played by Cassandra Friend. She may seem innocent but in the dénouement, she proves to be almost as much of a handful as Lucille and delivers a strong final monologue. More threatening is the Strowger, an automated switchboard that looks like a flying saucer but will ultimately take away all of their jobs.

Switch Triptych somehow has greater immediacy in the more intimate and narrow space at Soho than it had at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. The language is often dazzling and highly thought-provoking though it can pass you by if you drop your guard for even a few seconds, such is the pacing.

The primary theme of the play is the way in which mankind has been subjugated to machinery throughout the 20th century and beyond. Not far behind is the subjugation of women and their ability to fight back.

The other ideas underlying the play are manifold and, even on two viewings, some are not completely clear. In many ways, this does not matter as the pleasure of the play is in the performance, Shaplin's meticulous direction and the way in which his poetry throws light on so many sociological and technical developments during the last 85 years.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher