The High Life –Barons Court Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jonathan Marshall

Writer: Scott Younger

Director: Sarah Githugu

The basement of Barons Court Theatre could not be better suited to an intimate one-woman show. Kayla (Feyisara Mendes) recounts her journey from university graduation into the service industry. She finds herself slogging her way through shifts in a coffee shop that thinks it’s far trendier than it is. Serving pretentious drinks to hipsters who all have very specific demands, Kayla is simply going through the motions. She craves a career and has ambitions to really do something with her life, although a Media Studies degree doesn’t exactly carve out a simple, straightforward occupational path as other qualifications might.

While many early laughs result from Kayla’s coffee shop experiences (and nothing gets an audience on side like humour), it isn’t long before the 20-something learns of a job in PR. Her friend Jenny works for the company, the motto of which is ‘Making PR More Human’, and Kayla decides to go for it. Things are soon looking up as she bags the job. However kissing her manager Darren at Friday night work drinks makes things immediately complicated. Imposter syndrome also sets in, with Kayla feeling out of her depth and worried she’ll be exposed as a fraud.

Kayla is soon pulled aside by a senior employee and told to ‘do better.’ She does, quickly finding her feet and keeping her head down. As her relationship with Darren becomes more strained and complex and her ever-increasing workload more demanding, a burnt-out Kayla resorts to pouring the odd dash of vodka into her coffee. Keeping a stash in her desk drawer, she starts to rely on the drink to combat her daily stresses. Inevitably, people find out and Kayla and the world she has fought so hard to enter begin to crumble.

The story is nothing new and many aspects of the plot are somewhat predictable, although pleasingly there are some surprises. None of this matters, however. Thanks to Mendes’ natural ability to command the stage with her performance and effortless storytelling prowess, we are quickly captivated by the character. Dancing to Whitney Houston in front of her bedroom mirror tells us exactly who Kayla is from the very start. Clutching her necklace when nervous informs us of how the character is feeling without spelling it out. When Mendes physically disintegrates during the height of her alcohol abuse, it is in such stark contrast to the bubbly persona she exudes earlier, enabling the character’s story arc to be all the more effective and powerful.

It’s no small feat that Mendes manages to make her audience laugh one moment and feel deep empathy and even sadness for the character the next. The performer demonstrates excellent comic timing and masterfully morphs into the various characters Kayla encounters. Displaying a range of convincing accents and employing effective physicality elevates what could become a somewhat static performance in someone else’s hands.

Director Sarah Githugu keeps things tight and taut while allowing breathing space for the character. One could argue Scott Younger’s script is a little too long and might benefit from being filtered down in places, but an appropriate pace is sustained.

Younger writes with vivid realism and knows where and when to implant comical moments but at the core of his play sit deep and relevant themes. Casual racism, coercive abuse, toxic working environments, loneliness and alcohol abuse are all effectively explored through Kayla. As the play comes to a close we feel not only that we have become acquainted with someone but that in many ways a mirror has been held up to our own lives.

Runs until 18 February 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Vividly real

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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