Review by Daz Gale
It’s been a while since The Old Vic had a show with “Day” in your title, but if you think you may have seen this one before, it isn’t Groundhog Day returning for a repeat run (though if rumours are to be believed, maybe one day soon) – instead it’s the European premiere of a new play called Eureka Day which kicks off their latest season of productions.
Written by Jonathan Spector, Eureka Day is set at a progressive school in Berkeley, California and sees a group of parents on the Executive Committee in various meetings as they try to reach consensus on various issues. What starts as an everyday issue, determining what options to use on a drop down menu suddenly takes a more serious turn when a public health scare erupts and the argument of whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate suddenly rears its ugly head.
Sound familiar? While Covid is not mentioned at all, the comparisons to it are inevitable, all said with one knowing wink to the audience. Replace that word with Mumps and the same argument breaks out. The writing in Eureka Day is exemplary, taking a well-balanced approach to both sides of the argument and draining every bit of humour out of the situation for maximum effect.
Humour is the name of the game for this play, and Eureka Day is one of the funniest plays I have seen in a long time. From the political correct opening meeting where characters are too polite to say anything untoward to tempers exploding and differences come to the forefront later in the play. This supposedly friendly little community turns into ideological warfare, and the results are often hilarious.
If we are talking about comedy, the climax of the first act deserves its own special mention. Absolutely genius and comic gold, the scene depicts the five characters on a Zoom meeting to the parents of the school saying what they are going to do regarding vaccinations and the closure of the school. Meanwhile, the live comments from the parents scroll across the stage – the impact of this is, bar none, THE funniest thing I have seen on a stage this year. The audience were roaring with laughter so much, you couldn’t hear a word the actors were saying during this sequence, which felt very much deliberate. I would recommend seeing this show for these perfect 10 minutes alone.
While Eureka Day is very much tongue in cheek and so often funny, it carries with it a lot of depth too, with the more serious repercussions of the arguments taking a sobering look at the realities and side effects of such a supposedly harmless decision. Whichever side of the argument you sit on, you will be hard pushed not to get a lump in your throat at the less funny aspects of this play. The fact we have all been through it ourselves over the last 2 and a half years makes it that much more impactful as so many of us can so sadly relate to its themes.
If the writing of Eureka Day is as good as it gets, so is the A List cast that have been assembled for it. Golden Globe and Emmy award winning Helen Hunt makes her West End stage debut as Suzanne, whose supposedly calm demeanour ebbs away to reveal a more vulnerable and conflicted side to her. Watching a star as legendary as Helen Hunt give such an intimate and nuanced performance, it really is easy to see why she is so well acclaimed in a feat of acting.
This isn’t a one star show though. Susan Kelechi Watson from the TV show This Is Us is a total standout as Carina – the newest member of the group who finds herself in a strange new situation and has to carve out her own place in it. Susan is a remarkable actress, managing to claim focus even when she is not saying anything, such is her skillset. Her sparring with Hunt’s character Suzanne provides some of the most powerful scenes, with the dynamics between the five completely contrasting characters adding to what makes this play such a resounding success.
Superstore star Mark Mcinney is a hilarious highlight as Don, who has to somehow try to keep it all together, even when everything is falling apart. With a well rounded character, Mark gives a comic masterclass in the role. The cast are completed by Kirsten Foster as May, whose quiet nature explodes to brilliant results later in the play, and Ben Schnetzer as Eli, who gets some of the most contrasting scenes in a character who goes on a real journey. One thing anyone who sees this play can agree on is that the real star is the unseen Leslie Kaufman.
With brilliant direction from Katy Rudd, the action plays out with a great use of props and a glorious set design from Rob Howell. The use of video from Andrzej Goulding creates one of the best moments of theatre of the year, aided with great lighting from Jon Clark and expect sound from Donato Wharton.
Eureka Day is one of the funniest plays I have seen for a long time. Its genius lies in its relatability and how it effortlessly manages to poke fun at a serious issue that is still so fresh for many of us, without the feeling it is exploiting or belittling the situation itself. Jonathan Spector’s impeccable and intelligent writing is acted out wonderfully by a truly remarkable cast, giving the feeling you really are witnessing something incredibly special. One of my favourite plays of the year personally, it’s a big thumbs up from me.
Eureka Day plays at The Old Vic until October 31st. Tickets from oldvictheatre.com
Photos by Manuel Harlan