Writer and Director: Thom Jordan
In December 1963, two schoolboys decided to conduct a scientific experiment. Bruce McAllister and Randy Gardner’s premise was a simple one: stay awake for as long as possible. The experiment ended in January 1964, with Gardner staying awake for 11 days.
It is this extraordinary story that writer and performer, Thom Jordan, uses for his play, The Final Approach. Using audio equipment and a small projector, Jordan introduces himself both as the narrator, and the protagonist, Sam Marlowe. A teenager, in his last weeks of school, Sam attempts to ape McAllister and Gardner. Staying awake for hours, Marlowe investigates cases of intrigue and corruption. When he is asked by student Lauren to find out if her boyfriend is cheating on her, Marlowe is convinced he has uncovered a deception in his very own school. His principal, Mr Cross, calls him in to talk, and we learn pills have been found among Marlowe’s things. Sam insists they’re prescription.
The Final Approach’s achievement is the construction of Sam. Struggling with the separation of his parents (we learn it is Sam who has been responsible for uncovering his Dad’s infidelity), Sam creates a hard-bitten, private detective persona, taken straight from the pages of Raymond Chandler. Combined with a love of film noir (Sam’s crush on Lauren is reminiscent of Fred MacMurray’s scintillating chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) – Sam Marlowe is a highly enjoyable character to spend time with. Referring to his locker as his ‘office’, Sam is immersed in an alternate reality where he calls the shots. Marlowe’s characterisation is not only a sum of his influences, but caught somewhere in the psychological space between childhood and becoming an adult. Think Holden Caulfield meets Harriet the Spy.
Jordan slips in and out of narration: gaps begin to emerge, as the effect of Marlowe’s sleep deprivation becomes apparent. We get bits of story repeated, clashing points of view, as Marlowe descends further into hallucination and paranoia.
The tone of The Final Approach is all-important, and Jordan takes us from the stock formula of detective fiction, into surrealist, Kafka-esque moments. As Sam gets closer to Gardner’s record; not only the story, but the way it is told, becomes subject to scrutiny. We begin to wonder whether Sam’s compulsion to uncover the truth will have any resolution at all.
Told through a range of voice distortion, music and sound effects, Jordan’s suggestion of experiencing the show through headphones is an excellent one. The sense of immersion, a satisfying buffer between you and your angst, will be familiar to anyone whose teenage essential was the best headphones pocket money could buy.
The Final Approach uses these layers of nostalgia to illustrate that the teenage experience – dealing with a complex range of new, unexpected emotions – never really changes. The character’s choice of not just another world, but a separate voice, is treated by Jordan with empathy and care. Part comedy, part drama – The Final Approach never really settles on either, but explores both with fascinating results.
Available here until 27 June 2021
The Living Record @ Brighton Fringe runs here from 28 May until 27 June 2021