Review by Harry Bower
If you walked into an office one day and found the communal printer was on fire – what would you do? The answer is pretty obvious. You would likely panic, hit the fire alarm, and evacuate. But what if you didn’t? What if you just sat there, and let the flames engulf you? In a simplified way that is the climate-related metaphor being dramatised by Midlands based B Team Theatre in their comedy two-hander, Slow Violence, which is now playing at Pleasance Theatre.
As the lights go up we are introduced to Claire and Peter, two characters we will spend the next hour watching as they live out the repetitive monotony of their nine to five jobs working at the Happy Holidays Travel Agency. Claire is a long termer, angling for a promotion and committed to the corporate cause, worried about upsetting her bosses and far too loving of the minute levels of control she wields over the office. Peter’s the new recruit, generally optimistic and with no idea what he’s just walked into. The pair have a relationship which will be familiar to many who have experience of office working and the passive aggression is palpable.
Climate change permeates every part of this play’s narrative. A heater stuck on, a dirty unchangeable water filter, the lack of recycling bins, frequent power outages, unnecessary printing; even an office printer fire which nobody bothers to put out. The office and these issues represent our world and these characters the people in it. Claire represents wealthy people who have a certain power and influence over ‘those upstairs’ but choose not to do anything with it. Played by co-writer Laura Ryder, she is almost sycophantic in her desperation to avoid rocking the boat in favour of her own future, willing to compromise so much in the process.
Peter represents normal people – the people impacted the most by the climate crisis. It is he who is hottest thanks to the radiator, he who’s desk gets dripped on by the leak, he who seems to be the only one panicked by the flooding stairwell. Co-writer Harry Kingscott’s Peter is rightfully irritable but otherwise intentionally unremarkable, attempting to get through a day with minimal fuss but continually interrupted by the mess surrounding him, or Claire’s nonsense. Both performers demonstrate a calm confidence with curious and quizzical facial expressions used to great effect – at times almost clownish in their delivery.
Painting climate themes in this way is smart. It’s also not necessarily always obvious when a point is being made. That’s a double-edged sword but the lack of bravery in its first forty five minutes does allow the play to be entertaining in an unchallenging way. With a run time of an hour, which flew by, I found myself giggling and smiling throughout. These are characters which are fun to spend time with, a relationship which is amusing, and a plot which is silly. There is some outstanding physical theatre (trips and violence) which must be really difficult to pull off in such an intimate space, but Ryder and Kingscott perform it convincingly and make it look easy.
Though a relatable narrative captures the audience’s imagination there are a few moments which fall flat, notably the movement pieces which act as scene transitions to indicate a passing in time and are mixed in their effectiveness and quality. It is difficult to accurately portray the repetition of the workday at the same time as eking out the climate-metaphorical office breakdown which needs to take place over a longer timeline, I do get that – but it feels like this isn’t quite it.
The performances and chemistry between the two actors is excellent, as is the minimal set and props which are used to good effect. The lighting design by Pete Rickards is authentically realistic while maintaining a theatrical aura. It is the type of lighting design which is barely noticed at the beginning of the play, slowly taking on more responsibility in the storytelling as the narrative develops and eventually becoming core to the piece. Sound designer Ivan Stott composed some effects which deserve credit, the energetic original music is still in my head hours later.
Slow Violence makes some intelligent observations and holds a mirror up to its audience, delivering an effective commentary on the climate crisis without ramming it down people’s throats. That, I think, is its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. It’s an entertaining hour of ridiculousness delivered in an absurd style which will provoke a lot of laughs, but struggles to make a convincing statement other than reminding us we’re all doomed. I want to give the writers credit for one major point on climate which occurred to me on the way home, though, and that’s hope. The show demonstrates so many different opportunities at which its characters could have changed course. That they didn’t simply offers us hope that we might learn from their mistakes. And hope is a pretty epic thing to be feeling when you leave a theatre.
Slow Violence plays at the Pleasance Theatre London’s Downstairs space until Saturday 25 March 2023. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://www.pleasance.co.uk