“Administrate it to buggery”
Steve Marmion’s opening season as artistic director for the Soho Theatre continues with Mongrel Island, a new play by Ed Harris, which follows on both thematically, in its utterly surreal exploration of the mind and memory and in retaining part of the same company, who played in Anthony Neilson’s Realism which has just finished its run in the main theatre. Harris sets his play in the workplace, an office where a group of people are going about the deathly dull business of a massive data transfer, a job so mind-numbing yet all-compassing that it soon starts to take over their whole lives.
Marie, Only Joe and Elvis toil away under the watchful, twitching eye of boss Honey, but when Marie, a charming turn from Robyn Addison, takes on extra hours in order to try and get a few days off to visit her father, the already odd atmosphere in the office takes a turn for the even more surreal. Harris’ writing is strongest when he is evoking the grim realities of an uninspiring working life, the inane chat to fill the silence, the casual cruelty born simply of the need to entertain, the sexual connections made to alleviate the boredom. Simon Kunz’s vicious Only Joe and Shane Zaza’s Elvis with his head seemingly in the clouds entertaining greatly here, Elvis’ storytelling having a particularly surreal poetic beauty even when talking about giant prawns battling polar bears.
But as things get weirder, whether in reality or just in Marie’s over-tired imagination, the focus of the production becomes increasingly fuzzy. The arrival of Joanna Holden’s paper-eating Eastern European cleaning lady adds a touching note to the bizarreness as unpredictability is made a virtue of, but without enough corresponding humanity that would keep us emotionally involved. Director Marmion keeps the surrealist levels high, with ballet shoes tumbling from the ceiling as time passes inexorably on the digital clock to the side of the stage, but losing touch with reality this much threatened to disconnect the show, leaving it feeling a tad inconsequential.
Marmion is clearly a keen advocate of new writing, something of a holy grail for the theatrical establishment, yet I can’t help wonder if the allure of the new always equates to the best thing. Hundreds and Thousands which has just closed upstairs at the Soho is one of the most objectionable things I’ve seen all year and I don’t see how it passed the mark at all. And in this case, I was ultimately quite disappointed by how Mongrel Island didn’t really go anywhere having set up its premise, there was little of the emotional truth that lay behind even the most absurd moments in Neilson’s play. Still, it is appealingly acted and rarely boring, so could well be worth a look.