The Be All and End All
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal
This new play, written by and starring Jonathan Lewis, is the second in a trilogy entitled Education, Education, Education. This billing gives some clue as to the surprises and secrets in store in this neatly crafted, often funny, but occasionally too-shrill production.
Lewis plays Mark, a well-heeled member of several notorious and overlapping elites (Oxbridge, Westminster, Junior Minister in the Cameron government). His wife, Charlotte (Imogen Stubbs), is a powerful executive in recovery from cancer. The show opens with the pair affecting bemusement at the modern era and good-humouredly berating their son Tom (Matt Whitchurch) and his girlfriend Frida (Robyn Cara) for wasting hours on simplistic online entertainments.
It’s a rather clumsy and well-worn juxtaposition—“Charlie Bit My Finger” set against Fauré’s Requiem; Twitter vs the Mona Lisa—but bubbly enough in establishing the good-natured banter between the family members. The sub-Stoppardian reference-dropping gets rather wearing but there are plenty of good lines and the cast, directed by Damian Cruden, have found the overlapping rhythms of family jibes with skill.
Lewis has chosen to set the play in the week leading up to the Brexit Referendum, making possible several layers of dramatic irony as well as a somewhat tangential investigation of the way different family members’ viewpoints on that momentous decision have led to simmering, often un-aired domestic tensions in some households.
So there is a concrete, politically current setting for the drama, which later provides knotty and well-constructed arguments for a variety of moral positions. Essentially the play is an exploration of the pressures of the current education system—those on the young men and women sitting the exams, but also the extent to which (distinctly upper-middle-class) parents can and should go to get the best advantage for their children.
The play’s strongest, most intriguing scene is its second one, which begins with Mark on the phone to a secretary discussing the impending vote, showcasing Lewis’s passable Boris Johnson impression. Into the scene comes Frida, and from here a whole mass of more serious and compelling possibilities open up in the narrative.
This scene is truly gripping, with the secrets, subtexts and agreements hinting at all kinds of possible directions for the piece. Not all are explored, but this segment is a rich and ingeniously constructed piece of theatre, well performed by Cara and Lewis.
What’s unleashed in consequence is a Russian doll-like series of dilemmas for the family, many of which involve ever more Ibsen-esque tropes: the letter which holds the secret, the wayward son who disappears at a crucial time, the headstrong young woman trapped by male circumstance, the sins of the fathers…
The post-interval climax sees all the humour and lightness of the first half eradicated as several confrontations, stoked by earlier decisions, are played out. As risked in productions of Ibsen, though, the high emotional stakes translate too often to a fevered emotional pitch which is tough to sustain. The staging does all it can to manoeuvre its actors into refreshing and natural configurations, but little can be done to offset the need for half an hour of high melodrama in detonating the landmines which have been planted earlier in the piece.
Lewis writes dialogue very well—and delivers it with authority and skill too, as does the rest of this impressive cast. His script moves from abstract argument into personal politics and back speedily and smoothly. Many of the perspectives placed in the characters’ mouths—about privilege, the decaying system in which we find ourselves, and the doomed upwards spiral of grade inflation—are vital conversations which need to be had.
So this is a passionately argued piece with a great deal of craft behind it. For my tastes, the form is too staid—the Ibsenite resonances too overt and the cogs often too noisily whirring behind the drama for my total engagement—though there are definite strengths to the production. “We have to blow up everything,” asserts Frida at one point. It may be naïve, but I longed for a bit more of this dynamite.
Reviewer: Mark Smith