The Trial of Josie K
Unicorn Theatre (Clore Theatre)
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As its title makes obvious Katie Hims’s new play is inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Trial with its protagonist Josef K but, though it borrows the idea of someone facing trial for an unknown crime in a bizarre bureaucracy, it isn’t a dramatisation of that iconic novel.
The audience is placed in the same authoritarian world when the usual pre-show announcement about not taking photographs etc is made by a Ministry official and among the things not allowed is poetry (though laughter apparently is permitted).
Josie K is a 12-year-old schoolgirl and it is her birthday (her mum has left her chocolate cake in the fridge for her breakfast) when suddenly she is confronted by a nameless ministry official who tells she has to attend a meeting at precisely 9:57.
With her school chum Becca she wonders what it is for: perhaps she has won something, got an award for for public service perhaps. But she is wrong.
This first assignation leads to a surreal succession of meetings with the man from the Ministry or taking calls in telephone boxes at exact timings. It seems she is on trial but she can only guess at what for. There is no explaining. It goes on for weeks and she misses classes, but though Becca says she should tell her mother or their teacher, she insists they keep it a secret.
Josie is powerless, facing growing concern and confusion as the man in the suit seems to turn into a white rabbit or present her with a custard pie to throw at him, but the emphasis is less on the way authority treats the individual and seems rather to be offering young audiences reassurance in the face of their feelings of guilt or shame over something they have done.
Probably all of us have done something, often very small misdemeanours, that lie on our conscience (pocketing a tiddlywinks is one thing Josie comes up with) or fear something we did led to something terrible happening. The message here seems be that we should stop worrying, and the vitality of Leigh Toney’s production with its lively music and rapid changes of scene prevents things from becoming oppressive and gloomy.
Though Josie has her downcast moments, Nkhanise Phiri gives such a spirited performance full of body language and exuberant feeling that you can’t help but be charmed by her, and in Jadie Rose Hobson’s Becca, she has an excellent, down-to-earth best mate. Tom Moores as the Ministry man gives him more then a deadpan face: he’s caught in the system too and, unlike Kafka’s officialdom, eventually lets his humanity break through. Incidentally, the Ministry still makes its reports on an old-fashioned typewriter.
Designer Rose Revitt’s setting presents a pastel-coloured wall full of cupboards, drawers and two doorways that can instantly offer a fridge in a kitchen, student lockers in a school corridor, a room full of ministry files, a gramophone deck or an ominous red telephone, while an array of clocks are a reminder of authority’s insistence on punctilious punctuality. This isn’t frightening or oppressive; scene changes, supported by Beth Duke’s sound design, seem to sweep Josie along with them, but it is her own feelings of guilt and responsibility that ensnare her. That’s a warning to all of us, though particularly appropriate for the Unicorn’s target audience.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton