Writers: Melly Still and Max Barton
Director: Melly Still
Melly Still and Max Barton’s The Gretchen Question, currently running outside the stunningly situated Master Shipwright’s House by the Thames, starts well. It is the late 18th century. Eminent explorer Captain Banks (Alex Mugnaioni) and his crew of scientists return to London’s Royal Society from an arctic voyage. They bring news of a startling discovery: a bright blue pearl they name after Bank’s fiancé, Gretchen (Lauren Moakes). The mysterious pearl promises boundless energy to power industry, and unimaginable riches to those that exploit it. That the land from which the pearl comes is already owned by an indigenous tribe, bothers them little. Bringing back the pearl seems to be a metaphor for colonial exploitation.
Fast forward to 2022. Global mega-corporation Nova apparently now holds the rights to artic pearl-mining. But is Nova the force for good it claims to be? Enter lefty poet Lulit (Tamaira Hesson) and energetic social media influencer Maisie (Yohanna Ephrem), both employed in different ways to burnish sinister Nova’s reputation. What happens when they find out their employer may not be all it seems?
The first half of the 95-minute work, which switches repeatedly between the 18th and 21st centuries, promises an interesting sci-fi eco-thriller, with a bash at British imperial abuses and the theft of other people’s natural resources thrown in. Given that the show takes place at what was previously an important yard for building empire-plundering ships, there is much site-specific potential here too. Alas, mid-way through, the work heads off in an entirely different direction, with a series of dream-like and more or less fantastic happenings that have bafflingly tenuous connections to the preceding plot. It feels as if the writers got halfway through penning a decent story, found it not to their liking, and set off an entirely different tangent instead.
Without giving away plot spoilers (there is not a huge amount of second-half plot to spoil) the mixed bag that is the narrative includes a visit from German scientist Goethe, much slow-motion writhing (or it might be dancing) between various characters, a dead baby, a mechanism that looks like it comes from a very expensive Frankenstein movie, and several poisonings with blue food dye. Presumably all this makes sense to the writers. At one point Lulit, Maise and Gretchen end up on a planet far distant from earth. One of them breaks the fourth wall to helpfully inform the audience “not to worry about how they got there”. Sage advice if you find a few unexpected items in your Waitrose delivery, but not a sure-fire way of guaranteeing spectator engagement.
At another point the excitable Maise finds herself seemingly abandoned, left by Nova to fend for herself in the bitter cold of an arctic summer. This is a cue for a long if intermittently interesting treatise by a TV pundit on the physiological effects of cold on the body. As the audience buttons up their coats to fend off the icy September wind blowing up the Thames, one cannot help but feel an affinity for the unfortunate influencer. We are more or less abandoned, cold, wind-dishevelled and confused, trying to work out what on earth is going on.
The bantering duo of ice-rink attendants (best not to ask) Dave (Al Nedjari) and the other Dave (Ryan Gerald) make the most of the meagre comic lines on offer. At one point one of the duo throws his French fries on the ground in an apparent fit of janitorial ennui, frustration perhaps at the bewildering series of incidents he is asked to act out. Who can blame him?
Hesson’s edgy and charismatic performance as the gifted poet with unexplained (and never to be explained) amnesia is, despite some radio-mike problems, the stand-out turn of the evening. The always watchable Christopher Saul works hard as the grasping and convincingly cunning Royal Society chair.
Director and co-writer Still has an impressive track record of achievement to her name, including the National Theatre’s fantastic Coram. But The Gretchen Question feels like a misfire. Thankfully the evening has one unquestionably strong element in the varied and immaculately performed live music, created by the co-writer Barton, and composing partner Jethro Cooke.
Runs until 2 October 2022