“It’s all the same, you know? How it looks out there, along the highway.”
This summer has seen at least two song cycles imported into our theatres from the US (I’ve seen See Rock City… and Edges though there may well have been more) but Neil LaBute’s Autobahn extends the concept to straight drama, subtitled as it is as ‘A Short-Play Cycle’. As with the musicals, what this means is that to search for overarching narratives is a fruitless activity as what we’re presented with is a series of disparate parts with only the loosest thematic continuity.
It can help to be forearmed with such knowledge as the experience might otherwise be a little disconcerting. The seven playlets here are linked merely by all taking place in the front seats of a car that is making one kind of journey or another in America, and through the way in which the playwright toys with ideas of language and how people use it. Though given LaBute’s predilection for the darker, seedier side of human nature, we’re often left squirming in the back as unpalatable truths come to light and shocking revelations spill forth.
At its best, Autobahn really crawls beneath the skin as laughter curdles into disgust, the growing sense of unease that permeates the whole show never letting us sit too easily as the characters reveal their true intentions even in the brief moments we see them. Whether the crazed ex of Bench Seat (a brilliant Zoë Swenson-Graham), the reluctant confessor of Merge (a remarkably controlled Sharon Maughan) or the sinister driver of Road Trip (Henry Everett in chilling form), there’s compelling stuff indeed here.
There’s also a little bit too much of it, the weaker segments drag on a little too long (are we nearly there yet…?) and the overall impact is dissipated by the total length and the introduction of an interval. But Tim Sullivan’s production for the Savio(u)r company has a fluid grace, the transitions between the scenes providing useful connective tissue, and with Tom Slatter completing the always-intriguing four-strong company, Autobahn ought to please any fan of LaBute’s work.