Don’t. Make. Tea. – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Rob Drummond

Director: Robert Softley Gale

When done right, any story set just a few years ahead of our own can be an effective satire of the world in which we live right now. That’s the case for Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s Don’t. Make. Tea., which takes the current state of Britain’s benefits system and imagines what it might look like just over a decade from now.

In 2037, Gillian Dean’s Chris, a former police detective who has developed oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, receives an in-person visit from Ralph (Neil John Gibson), a benefits auditor, for an assessment of her claims for benefits. Successive governments’ attempts to reframe their attitude to benefits payments reach their zenith in this future world: “passing” the assessment means you’re fit to work – and a passing mark means you’ll be offered a job on the spot. Refusal means benefits will be frozen, and there is no appeal.

Ralph is ebullient about the system and all the modernisations that have come with a supposed “Accessible Britain” utopia. Chris, who is losing her eyesight, has a free “Able” – a tabletop device (voiced by Richard Condon) not unlike an Amazon Echo, which is able to provide live audio description of her life. She also has a power-assisted front door and live BSL captioning on her TV (although she can’t see it that well, the human figure provides her company and reminds her of her late, deaf mother).

There is a hint that such free accessibility aids are provided by a government more interested in the soundbite of “Accessible Britain” than in making life equitable for all. Again, there’s the correlation with today – ask a wheelchair user about how accessible a London bus truly is at rush hour, for example. There are also digs in Rob Drummond’s script about the disadvantages of supposedly “free” technology, as Chris learns that Able’s always-on data tracking may not be as private as she thought.

As the assessment continues, it becomes clear that it is one in which Chris, despite her obvious need for assistance, has no chance of passing – sorry, “failing” – due to a points system replete with Kafkaesque contradictions. If she has regular moments of suicidal ideation but has yet to act upon them, that gets a point for resilience. If she is able to painfully make an occasional trip into town, no matter how long it takes, that’s a point for mobility.

Gibson’s joviality contrasts with Dean’s increasing exasperation as Chris realizes that the assessment will not get the outcome she needs. Director Robert Softley Gale ramps up the tension, finely balancing Drummond’s script’s comedic and acerbically satirical notes until an Act I denouement that is as shocking as it is rooted in everything that has come before.

The second act pivots substantially from the futuristic realism that has come before as Chris begins to hallucinate as she ponders the consequences of her actions. Condon emerges to play a walking, talking version of Able, joined by the TV’s BSL interpreter (Emery Hunter). The trio tries to use Chris’s former experience as a detective to cover up her actions.

The focus and clarity evident in the first act get away from the company in the second half, which, although still thoroughly entertaining, loses its grip on the grimly dark satire that so effectively fuels the first. The introduction of Ralph’s wife, and boss, Jude (Nicola Chegwin) adds further layers, though, and helps to bring out just how low Chris is prepared to sink to justify her actions.

Even with these second act flaws, though, one leaves Don’t. Make. Tea. with a finer appreciation of how the system is currently stacked against disabled people and how attempts to make the benefits system “fairer” are only really about making life harder for those most in need. In a world where sick notes become “wellness notes”, where not being able to work is forever demonised to the detriment of our whole society, Don’t. Make. Tea. invites us to laugh about the absurdity of it all – and then to remember that, far from being a futuristic vision, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy is with us now. And that means it’s still within our power to change it.

Continues until 6 April 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Richly dark satire

Show More
Photo of The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
The Reviews Hub