Writers: various including Simon Stephens, Dylan Moran, Janice Okoh and Michael Chaplin
Directors: Steve Marmion and Max Roberts
Reviewer: Ian Foster
What is Utopia? Defining the hopes and dreams of a perfect world has occupied writers for hundreds of years and in this co-production between Newcastle’s Live Theatre and the Soho Theatre, contemporary writers have also been asked to explore their own takes on the concept, blueprints for future happiness, which have been woven altogether by Steve Marmion and Max Roberts in this ambitious, if unwieldy production.
In a strange grey room, six pierrots work their way through the different blueprints, working through the various scenarios to see if any of them actually do lead to the promised land. Some are funny and satirical as in the warlord discovering the power of Facebook or the old-school stand-up whose jokes fall flat in a world of perfect harmony. And some are more serious, as the authors probe the idea of utopian ideals arising out of less-than-perfect situations, acts of self-sacrifice and tender kindness coming out of the blue.
There are twelve blueprints in total all mixed up in here and the combination is not always 100% successful. The first, overlong, half has a shonky, almost vaudevillian feel to it as there’s a little too much focus on the clowning around which threatens to unbalance the whole piece. But after the interval, the fragments of story coalesce in a much more effective fashion, not least in the transgressive power of Tobi Bakare’s rousing speech which leads in an unexpected direction.
Perhaps predictably they save the best for last: two pieces intertwined beautifully as Michael Chaplin’s tale of a quiet, melancholy moment of connection between an elderly MP and her gauche young carer, Pamela Miles and Laura Elphinstone both excellent here, is contrasted with the gradual, thoughtful, progress through Simon Stephens’ almost chirpy The Sun Will Come Up. And there’s something movingly apt about the place that the final Utopian act comes from, which almost flies in the face of the impressive roll-call of names and grand ideals.
Stage debutants Sophia Myles and Rufus Hound make up the rest of the cast along with David Whitaker and cope admirably with the constantly shifting worlds evoked by the writers. Ultimately, it probably reaches a little too far and a little too vaguely across the length of the whole, where firmer editing and more control over the tone might have been usefully employed, which occasionally makes this a challenge to sit through. But at the same time, there’s something rather refreshing in its cautious, steady optimism in a theatrical landscape full of doom and gloom.