Review: Boiling Frogs, Southwark Playhouse

“Do you have a problem with authority?
‘I have a problem with authoritarians…’”

The title of Boiling Frogs refers to an alleged phenomenon which should be familiar to fans of Christopher Brookmyre’s books and is an apt metaphor for this, The Factory’s first ever full-length original play. Usually known for reinterpreting classic plays and hugely interactive scenarios (the audience bringing along random props to be used and getting to pick who will play each part), Steven Bloomer has written a play set in a police cell in a world not too dissimilar from our own but where global warming has hit hard, the fallout from a riot called the Battle of Birmingham is on everyone’s lips and capital punishment is being introduced for terrorists.

The first people we see in the cell are Mark, a keenly intelligent professional protester arrested for impersonating a police officer and the policeman who is trying to interview him and avoid getting himself tied up in Mark’s word games and constant assertions of his civil rights. As the play progresses, George is then thrown into the cell, another protester who was at the same picnic in Parliament Square and then Tom, a policeman being held for overstepping the line. A sergeant also appears periodically to ratchet up the tension as the walls both metaphorically and literally begin to close in and the three prisoners are forced to face up to what they have done and what they believe is right.

The audience are seated on all four sides, complicit observers of events in the police cell but rendered impotent as appeals for help come through the mirrors and it soon becomes apparent that it is not just the characters that are in the pan of water with the frogs but us ourselves as well, as political ideologies and moral viewpoints are picked apart and deconstructed with highly unpredictable results and a niggling claustrophobic sense of how easily this might be realistic.

For my performance, I saw Ben Lambert as the bright-eyed, quick-witted Mark, neatly suggesting how violence is never too far away even for self-avowed pacifists; Colin Hurley as the policeman with just a hint of redemptive kindness about him; Alan Morrissey as the handsome officer Tom with his own take on appropriate behaviour for a policeman and Paul Sharma as the quiet George whose still waters run deep (the actor playing the sergeant was uncredited but I think it may have been Jonathan Oliver). All were excellent and given that the roles are alternated throughout the company for each performance, all the actors did well to spark off each other with consummate ease. I’m not precisely sure what the constant rotation of actors actually offers this production though: in an improvisational context then sure, but it feels closer to just being a gimmick here.

The rest of the company are kept busy though through providing the extensive sound effects in a Filter-esque manner. My seat offered a distractingly interesting view onto much of this and it was fascinating to hear a guy endlessly make the noise of a cassette rewinding, drop cabbages onto the floor and repeatedly hit a leg of lamb with a wooden mallet. The evocation of the noise of the party outside every time the door to the cell was opened was well observed and highly effective.

In its hints of a dystopian alternative that is scarily close to reality, Boiling Frogs posits a harsh indictment of the erosion of civil liberties but also of the futility of peaceful protesting. But in raising so many questions and challenging so many assumptions, I was left feeling like it could have gone further and deeper in answering more of them and playing devil’s advocate a bit more, especially with the discussion around the necessity of the police. But to be challenged like this in the theatre is exhilarating and a sadly rare occurrence these days so The Factory should be commended for their efforts and confirm their position as one of the experimental theatre groups to watch.

Running time: 90 minutes
Programme cost: free
Booking until 2nd October
Note: some strobe lighting effects are used

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