Writer: Jordan Hall
Director: Jimmy Walters
There are some plays which, although written before the pandemic hit, find new resonances in the months after we all had to shelter in place, only heading outdoors for prescribed duties and tutting performatively at people who hoarded toilet paper while quietly topping up our own supplies.
And then there are the plays whose views on armageddon and catastrophe lose, rather than gain, resonance. Among that group is How to Survive an Apocalypse from Canadian playwright Jordan Hall, making its European premiere at the Finborough after being first produced in 2016.
Kristin Atherton’s Jen is the editor of Belle Vie, a lifestyle magazine that aims to be Vancouver’s answer to the New Yorker, but is financially struggling. Jen and her husband Tim (Noel Sullivan) have money worries of their own, because in addition to Jen’s job uncertainly, Tim is an unemployed video game designer.
When the magazine’s publisher parachutes in Ben Lamb’s alpha male consultant, Bruce, his predilection for hunting and self-sufficiency provokes Jen into realising she and Ben would be ill-equipped in the event of a global apocalypse.
The greatest element of Hall’s writing comes through in her observation of the couple’s changing dynamic as Jen becomes drawn into survivalist preparation and Tim uses his programming abilities to build simulations of how he and his wife would fare in different cataclysmic scenarios, at the expense of finding paid work. Atherton and Sullivan bring a natural bounce to the couple’s relationship, helped by Sullivan getting the wittiest dialogue and delivering each line to perfection.
The difficulty is that Jen’s increasing obsession with self-sufficiency is so crudely written that it makes The Good Life look like a Samuel Beckett play, and are not helped by its audience having lived through a true pandemic rather than an imagined one. And while Lamb’s character is supposedly the inciting presence for Jen’s transformation, the levels of suaveness that he brings to the role make it seem less likely, not more, that she would fall for the survivalist side of his nature.
Christine Gomes fills out the cast as Abby, a woman whose introduction as a woman finally free from her trophy wife status is far more interesting than the confidante/love rival that Hall’s script reduces her to. Like Atherton and Sullivan, Gomes and Lamb do also have a chemistry, so much that one wonders what this quartet of actors could do with material more befitting their talents.
Ceci Calf’s set, which reconfigures the Finborough’s compact space into a traverse stage, does well to serve as multiple locations, from millennial apartment to office and even a forest for an ill-advised attempt at survival training.
That particular episode and its fall out do at least propel Hall’s script towards its highlight: the realisation that the one apocalypse Jen and Tim should be preparing for is the implosion of their marriage.
When the survivalist metaphors are stripped away, what remains feels like an honest attempt to capture the angst of a young couple who are wondering if they made the right choices. But How to Survive an Apocalypse takes so long to get there that such a revelation seems scant compensation for the journey.
Continues until 23 October 2021