Review by Sam Waite
Across all forms of entertainment, audiences have become increasingly fascinated with recent history, particularly work about the rise and subsequent falls of its subjects. While Hulu (or Disney+ for us UK viewers) mined drama from sources ranging from celebrity scandals (Pam and Tommy) to widespread medical fraud (The Dropout), and Hustlers bought true-ish stories of the 2008 financial crash to cinemas, other work has kept itself more firmly fictionalised. Brilliant Jerks, now playing at Southwark Playhouse, is never quite about anyone real, familiar though some of them may seem.
The play, returning after a VAULT Festival premiere in 2018, tells the loosely connected stories of three individuals – Tyler, “TK” to some, is the founder of a multi-billion-dollar ride share app; Sean is a programmer who is recruited by the company and has mixed feelings about the office culture; Mia, the first character we meet, is one of the app’s drivers. All three have emotional highs and lows, and both men’s careers have epic highs leading to disastrous lows – each, speaking directly to the audience, has a compelling story to tell.
Mia, the Glaswegian cabbie, is played with brashness and delicacy in equal parts by Kiran Sonia Sawar. A former addict who gave up the child of her teen pregnancy to a better life than she could give, Mia is determined to keep herself on the straight and narrow and Sawar captures that quiet, largely unspoken determination perfectly. With the three-strong cast covering other parts throughout, she also brings palpable frustration to Amy, a victim of misogynist office culture, and quiet dignity to Clara, a singer and love interest for Tyler.
Opposite Sawar’s disgruntled Amy is newbie coder Sean, played here by Sean Delaney. Delaney gives Sean the required naïveté and greenness without making him feel too inexperienced for a position in a major office, or so youthful that his office romance with manager Craig feels even more inappropriate. An HIV positive gay man, Sean has moments of emotional fragility which are as heart-wrenchingly believable as his determination to be loyal to both Craig and Amy.
While Delaney was a standout for me, the strongest overall performance may in fact belong to Tyler himself – Shubham Saraf does exceptional work, deceptively low-key in his performance to allow the eventual emotional climax to truly shine. Tyler is perhaps easy to hate, as the man who ran with an idea he only half-created and who shows no remorse in keeping the success to himself. The titan atop a 60-billion-dollar empire, in Saraf’s hands he still comes across as human, fumbling and making mistakes and living to see the consequences of ego overtaking sense. He also brings a sleazy, off-putting ease to Craig, Sean’s closeted manager and Amy’s workplace annoyance.
These performances overlap and link into one another, with Katie Ann-McDonough’s direction helping not only to craft these fine performances but to shape them into something seamless. Where dialogue intersects and characters finish each other’s sentences or interrupt each other it never feels forced or unnatural, and its comedic effect is given just the right amount of room to breathe before moving on with the scene. McDonough also makes excellent use of the set, a ramp leading into a rounded desk which allows for Mia's car, the office, a crowded nightclub, and even the Eiffel Tower, to be imagined and explored.
This set design and the costuming, both by Hazel Low, join Saraf in deceptive simplicity. While Low’s set allows for versatility and the use of imagination to build a scene without over-complicating the staging, their wardrobe work explores the power adding or removing an item of clothing can have to transform our reaction to a person. Sean, for example, goes from promotion-ready programmer to rowdy lad on a Glasgow night out with the removal of a jacket. These transitions between character and setting are, of course, aided by the strength of Joseph Charlton’s script – while the stories may fall into familiar clichés and events may at times seem to move forward too quickly, the dialogue and pacing are well-controlled and there are just enough surprises to keep the crowd’s attention.
Rachel Sampley’s lighting design leans further into both the air of minimalism and the tech-focused setup, with a ring of light overhead pulsing in various colours conjuring thoughts of a phone app instantly. Sound design by Annie May Fletcher is the final piece of this puzzle, pulling together the location of each scene with simple fade-ins of music and selective use of near-silence and, at one moment, a continuous ringing to connect us to a character's state of shock and panic.
Intimate and often deeply felt despite the global scale of some of the subject matter, Brilliant Jerks raises some important questions about workplace cultures, the commodification of ideas, and even the ethics behind the very apps it's inspired by. Bolstered by its own lack of grandiosity, this production puts a great deal of faith in the text itself and the actors’ performances to deliver the audience to their ending safely, comfortably, and with a high rating – a bold choice, and the correct one to have made.
Brilliant Jerks is playing in The Little at Southwark Playhouse Borough until March 25th.
Photos by Nick Rutter