Writer: Inyoung Lee
Co-Directors: Helen Iskander and Henry Charnock
Inyoung Lee’s two-hander Surviving Strangers has an admirably simple set-up. Data analyst Adam bumps into newly arrived Korean visitor Eve on a busy metropolitan street and, gentlemen as he is, offers to help with her heavy suitcase. They have lunch and there is a mutual attraction. She invites him up to her tiny, rented apartment for some ramen noodles and some boisterous canoodling. Next morning these two strangers wake up to shrieking police sirens and a changed world: a toxic virus is sweeping across the city, and everyone has to stay just where they are. Unable to leave the flat and with only a stuffed pink pig for company, these two have to learn to get along. What could go wrong? Well, things can only really go one of two ways here. No spoilers here, but the fate of this budding romance is telegraphed in the first ten minutes, something which leaves the piece palpably lacking in dramatic tension.
Surviving Strangers captures the stresses, strains, and restless tedium of lockdown reasonably well. Amongst other things the couple (Fred Arnot and Inyoung Lee) has to manage the challenge of simultaneous Zoom meetings, his snoring, her dire taste in TV boxsets, their mismatched sleeping patterns, exercise schedules and taste in food, and a feeling on both sides that all they really want is some alone-time. The coping mechanisms of sex, drinking, sharing dance tips, “what do you like about me?” conversations, and playing interminable games help, but in the end these two broadly likeable people just get on each other’s (and frankly, our) nerves.
The problem here is that beneath the surface representation of lockdown angst, familiar enough to most, there is not a lot going on in Surviving Strangers. The show purports to be about the impact of cultural differences on relationships, but beyond some linguistic misunderstandings there are no such differences on display. Nor is there any attempt at interrogating what cultural or personal values drive these individuals to behave the way they do. Neither have a backstory or journey to speak of, which leaves us with two affable (if flat) characters, not getting on for 70 minutes. When Harry Met Sally it ain’t.
Korean Janggu drummer Jun Seok de Back provides a resonant soundscape. Arnot is a goofily engaging and boisterously energetic Adam, whose attempts to learn Korean provide some of the show’s few comic moments. Writer Lee’s performance as the homesick, fish-out-of-water Eve neatly confounds unconscious stereotypes about Asian women: she is liberated, mouthy, physically expressive, and determined to get her way. Unfortunately, neither performance saves Surviving Strangers from being almost as tedious as the lockdown it describes.
Runs until 20 November 2022