Uri Inspector reviews “Everybody Shut Up”, an original play by Finn Burge and Hugh Pearson.
Janet Productions’ debut play was born from the dissociation it embodies. A feud with UCL’s Drama Society – which I may or may not be allowed to mention – took it from student-sponsored glitz to guerrilla roguishness, from the UCL quad or St.Pancras Crypt to a living room in Finsbury Park. Writers Finn Burge and Hugh Pearson stand barefoot on a carpeted floor by a leather sofa wearing baby blue velvet tuxedos. It is this lovable and menacing independence, as well as the overarching sense of disconnect at its heart that makes the schizophrenic multiverse of “Everybody Shut Up” all the more enthralling.
As the action moves incessantly from quaint housewarming to castration, through rituals of consumption to choreographed chaos, an extremely versatile troop of actors undergo metamorphosis from sombre authenticity to the grotesque residents of a hysterical Truman Show-cum-Carry-on film hybrid. The vacillation between the two creates a sort of throbbing effect wherein characters are simultaneously flattened out and developed, where extreme discomfort and tragedy are never far from 80s pop ballads, slapping and sex jokes. Carol (Tanwen Stokes) seamlessly changes from that scatterbrained flatmate everyone has to a walking talking mysoginistic stereotype, while reticent and nerdy Dr. Adam (Luke Duncan) transmogrifies into a gay porn star. It is frivolous, dashingly ironic and intoxicatingly brash. But fear and pain are never far from its ever-shifting surface.
One of the play’s most impressive merits is its ability to endlessly toy with the parameters of what is predictable and what isn’t. Janet Production’s manifesto espouses a disillusionment with the overwhelming profusion of “things” in the world that ultimately become meaningless to all except their creators. The next logical step to this seems a society in which everything is identical, where everything can be predicted. They put it more eloquently than I could: “Everybody is doing everything in a Niagra of money-drenched garbage”. What this play seems to be is a search for the human behind this, for the “someone” within the “everything”.
“Everybody Shut Up” lapses from charmingly conventional suburban drama, or cliché fringe comedy meets Arthur Miller, into full-throttle farce. Yet in each of these over-trodden paths there are widening cracks, or rather small traces of fungus underfoot, as subtle as an actor’s incongruous expression, or as quick as a few too many words spoken, that refuse the audience the comfort of predictability. Overbearing masculinity breaks through the levity in a dark cloud, the quiet heartbreak of a disturbed former-lover silences all laughter, the chocolate cake is studded with pills intended for suicide.
The play’s most arresting moment comes after a hilarious sequence of misunderstandings that are repetitive and predictable to the point of self-ridicule, the ensemble scrambling knee-deep in an intoxicating mix of toilet humour, slapstick, heightened stereotyping and sharp wit. Louis, expertly portrayed with brilliant subtlety by Nick Brown, cuts through our blissfully saccharine immersion in 60s TV with a sobering gravity. He turns to his wife Louise (Paula Moehring) in utter desperation, the kind that is anathema to the universe of “Friends” or “Seinfeld”, when he realises that the holiday he booked to fix the couple’s broken relationship will not be enough to smooth things out. It makes us realise the very simple truth that the titillating and manicured dynamics of popular culture inhabit a completely separate realm from our own, from their aesthetics to their rhythms down to the very language they use. The happy endings, the perfect friendships, the neatly episodic structure of their realm are not in ours. This is liberating and terrifying.
Because for all its playfully carnivalesque exaggeration, “Everybody Shut Up” aims for psychological realism. It presents a desperate picture of our world, a world whose inhabitants are relentlessly trying to smooth over the fissures, to loosen the strains within and between themselves, where all the elements of life are precariously trembling on an undersized table with anxious fury. And if something should fall from its surface and shatter on the floor, it really might be impossible to put it together again, which is a truth we find very difficult to face.
It ultimately plays on a tension between order – the artificially engineered mass culture of perfection we are addicted to – and the chaos of emotion, self-assertion, resentment, laughter and instinct that life really is. In this world, people can damage, and do damage to others, irreparably, and retribution and reconciliation are fictions of religion and sitcoms. This is a message that, beneath the multiple layers of the real and the surreal that we are shamelessly presented with for a breathless hour, makes “Everybody Shut Up” an inescapably depressing piece of theatre.
As the play finishes one is left with a feeling crushingly similar to what is experienced when the last episode of an aggressively binged, mind-numbing sitcom finishes. In the studio, far from where you are, the cameras are off, the actors are no longer wearing painted grins, their faces are now serious and fiercely mundane. Your laptop transmutes from escapist tunnel into that unclean and feeble black mirror, enacting its own very small display of death. The creative baby of two playfully eccentric yet uniquely serious minds, “Everybody Shut Up” is as brutally honest and hallucinatory as theatre can get.
Everybody Shut Up is on 20th-23rd June at St Saviour’s Vicarage. Find more information here.