DramaLondonReview

Eureka Day – Old Vic, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Jonathan Spector

Director: Katy Rudd

Principles are wonderful in theory but how much do they really hold up in practice? Jonathan Spector’s school-based drama uses polarised debates about the vaccination of children to unpick concepts of equal representation, freedom of speech and consensus rule among a group of parent governors at a seemingly progressive school. The world in microcosm, Eureka Day, playing at the Old Vic, asks where individual interest should end and community begin.

Welcoming a new parent to their team, the Executive Committee of the Eureka Day School thrives on an open, inclusive and liberal approach to school governing including the use of gender-neutral pronouns and unisex toilets. But when a mumps outbreak puts a Committee member’s child in hospital, the discussion on whether to make vaccines mandatory brings their all too fragile alliance tumbling down.

Spector’s play taps into a universal debate about the value of medical intervention into the treatment of disease and the individual’s right to choose for themselves and their children – a scenario that applies as much to the mumps outbreak as it does to recent debates around the Covid vaccines. Eureka Day cleverly presents a sense of hostile and increasingly polarised discussions, amplified by the semi-anonymity of online chat rooms to magnify and distort. A virtual town hall event at the end of Act One is a joy, the actors drowned out by peels of laughter from the audience observing a genuinely hilarious sidebar discussion that scrolls across the Old Vic stage (designed by Rob Howell) in which angry unseen parents mix irrelevancies with accusatory bile and the odd emoji. It is a beautifully constructed and sharply observed descent into conversational chaos.

The rest of Act One rather pales in comparison, taking time to establish the consensus approach and “core values” but very little character depth. Act Two picks up the pace as long-standing member of this PTA Suzanne collides with newbie Carina over degrees of social duty and the different interpretations of community. Spector tries out the arguments on both sides, allowing all the characters to seem rational in their responses, although it is always clear which side the writer is on, which leaks some of the drama from the set-up.

And while Spector investigates the hypocrisy in notions of consensus government as long as everyone agrees with the loudest voice who believes they are entitled to more equality than others, Eureka Day ultimately lacks bite. Spector could go much further in breaking down the social structure of the Executive Committee, pushing his characters into more spiteful God of Carnage-like behaviours that expose their surface beliefs in fairness and increases the comic, even farcical, possibilities of that deterioration of the social veneer. The power dynamic shifting from the old guard to a new face is pure Pinter, a subversive dynamic the show could also seed much sooner that would add greater drive.

Mark McKinney has the best of the action as headteacher Don whose innocent attempts to mediate and keep the peace are brilliantly timed, earning the biggest laughs outside of the chat room scene. Helen Hunt’s Suzanne is an elder statesman whose manipulation of others to suit her own purposes becomes increasingly visible, and as the mask slowly slips Hunt charts her character’s self-realisation well. Susan Kelechi Watson develops Carina from uncertain new arrival, tripping over the rules, to a woman determined to have her voice heard, finding a way to reshape the Committee’s approach as she does it.

There are a few dead ends in the show’s two-hour running time which includes an interval, and a not-so-secret relationship between Kirsten Foster’s May and Ben Schnetzer’s Eli who is in an apparently open marriage doesn’t develop, nor does the questionable financial position of the school and its donors which could give the play greater opportunity to think about echo chambers and the principles of privilege. Eureka Day is often very funny, but it doesn’t always get the balance between comedy and drama quite right.

Runs until 31 October 2022

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