Neil John Gibson

Don’t. Make. Tea.

06/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Chris (Gillian Dean) is feeling understandably nervous. It’s the year 2030 and today she’s having her assessment. Chris has OPMD, which means that she is partially sighted, has trouble walking and is in constant pain. This rare condition is degenerative, so things are only going to get worse – but, under a recently implemented system, claimants are assessed ‘positively’, i.e. on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

The process will be depressingly familiar to those who have been through a PIP assessment. Points are awarded throughout the frustratingly opaque interview. If Chris scores five, she will be expected to take on part-time work. Score ten and she can go full-time! All Chris knows is that she has no money in her account and her electricity supply is set to switch itself off when the meter hits zero. She’s desperate. Meanwhile, her life is supervised by ‘Able’, an Alexa-like hub that offers a commentary on everything she says and does… and may just be capable of informing on her should she ever step out of line.

Enter Ralph (Aidan Scott), the sly, smirking interrogator who will determine Chris’s future. ‘We listened,’ he keeps telling her, and then proceeds to turn her words against her. His questions are cunningly designed to trip her up and he’s on to all the received wisdom that has served her up to now (‘be you on your worst day’; ‘don’t show them you can make a cup of tea’).

This clever and prescient piece from Birds of Paradise Theatre, written by Rob Drummond and directed by Robert Softly Gale, is designed to be as accessible as possible. Able’s irksome commentary acts as a kind of audio description, while on a huge TV screen that dominates one wall, Francis (the engagingly comic Emery Hunter) helpfully translates everything into sign language. An overhead video display also offers viewers the text. I’ve rarely seen audio-visual aids so skilfully integrated; indeed, they are characters in their own right.

It’s a show of two halves. The first is essentially a taut two-hander as Chris and Ralph go through the various hoops and hurdles of the assessment. The narrative becomes increasingly adversarial and the interview builds to a frantic conclusion. As the lights go down for the interval, I ask myself where this can possibly go next.

The second act is an entirely different kind of beast, a high-powered slice of farce as new figures appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It would be wrong to give too much away but there are some wildly funny moments here, though the piece never forgets that it has an important message about disability rights to get across – something it skilfully manages without thumping me over the head.

Don’t. Make.Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Wilf

10/12/21

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

James Ley’s latest offering is about as far away from a ‘Christmas play’ as it could be. In fact, there’s only one nod towards the festive season: a decorated tree in the corner of the stage. Tree aside, this is more of an antidote to Yuletide than an evocation of it. And that’s fine, because there’s plenty of the traditional stuff on offer at other venues in the city. Wilf is a December play for those who want something… else.

And it really is something else. Where to start? Calvin (Michael Dylan) is struggling. He’s bipolar – in the midst of a manic episode – and everything is going wrong. He knows he needs to leave his abusive boyfriend, Seth, but there’s no one who can help. Not his mum: she’s left for a new life in the American bible belt, and has cut him out of her life. Not his driving instructor, Thelma (Irene Allan), because – after a mere 104 lessons – Calvin has passed his test, and the ex-psychotherapist is pleased to be rid of him. So where can he turn?

The answer soon presents itself: Wilf. Wilf is an unlikely saviour, not least because he is a car. Specifically, Wilf is a beaten up old Volkswagen, so there’s more than a hint of Herbie about him – although Wilf’s antics are more colourful than his predecessor’s. And by colourful, I mean sexual. Calvin and Wilf’s relationship is intense.

To be fair, Calvin’s pretty intense all round. With his shiny new driving license and his battered old car, he finally finds the courage to break away from Seth, but he’s a long way from feeling okay. A road trip around Scotland, staying in Airbnbs and cruising graveyards for anonymous sex, seems appropriate. And, with Wilf’s help, Calvin might just make it.

This tight three-hander, directed by Gareth Nicholls, is equal parts quirky and charming. Dylan is immensely likeable as Calvin, and treads the line between comedy and tragedy with absolute precision. The soundtrack is banging – who doesn’t love a bit of Bonnie Tyler? – and the simple set (by Becky Minto) makes us feel like we’re with Calvin all the way: inside the car; inside his head.

Allan brings a powerful energy to the role of Thelma, while Neil John Gibson, as everyone else, represents a gentler, more nurturing humanity, especially in the form of Frank.

All in all, Wilf is a gloriously weird concoction, and a most welcome addition to the winter theatre scene.

4 stars

Susan Singfield