JAMIE HARDIE reviews Janet Productions’ surreal comedy at St Saviour’s Vicarage.

In storytelling there is the concept of the twist: a narrative that sets up conventional expectations, and then subverts them for dramatic effect. More sophisticated structures might involve ‘red herrings’ or leading their audience ‘down the garden path’. In Everybody Shut Up, the twists are thumbscrews, the red herrings are sharks, and the garden path is a mudslide into a landfill populated by nightmarish half-people.

The debut play of Finn Burge and Hugh Pearson’s Janet Productions is wrong on many levels. Nothing is in the right order: the prologue resembles the climax of a tragedy, the characters actually become less developed as the play progresses, and any attempt to anticipate what will happen next is doomed to frustration – frustration and discomfort are the audience’s recurring companions. Certain graphic scenes go on for too long – far too long – to be enjoyable or entertaining. Food and drink are thrown about and consumed to a nauseating degree. A cramped staging situation brings the audience close enough to see the sweat glisten on the brows of the actors. The use of canned laughter and shopping-channel music gives rise to the disconcerting sensation that we are somehow not the only audience watching. Even the characters seem anxious: at least one, without fail, is startled by the piercing interruption of the doorbell at several points – an intrusion on their own solipsistic, soap-bubble narratives and comforts. There is a sense that we are all engaged in something naughty, something that we shouldn’t be caught doing, and it lends an edge to every gasp of disgust, every burst of laughter, and every moment at which we try to figure out just what the hell is going on.

Despite this chaotic atmosphere, the play is not formless, with a clear three act structure: an opening dialogue to introduce the characters, which crackles with the kind of politically incorrect humour reminiscent of Janet-to-be’s Meat last year; a sudden jump to a corny sitcom plotline in which the fourth wall is smartly whisked away, the characters warp markedly into stereotyped versions of themselves, and the play, with an ironic wink, allows itself to be predictable for a short time; and finally a no-holds-barred dive into surrealism which has to be seen to be believed. Such a play demands flexibility and commitment from its performers, and it was not left wanting: each actor throws themselves headlong into the various insanities of the show with boundless energy and enthusiasm, especially as they lean into their character stereotypes at the beginning of the second act. Nick Hyde in particular, playing the hapless Louis, bears a challenging role with all the poise and gravity a man stuffing his face with chocolate cake can muster.

The writing in Everybody Shut Up is superb. Apparently superficial exchanges drip with significance. Minor quibbles early on foreshadow major relationship developments in the play’s bloated fantasy third act. The characters question everything, never quite seeming to nail anything down. Can you drink gin with soda water? What’s the difference between ironic and appropriate? Why are we talking about astrology anyway? Their mundane figures somehow arrange themselves into striking and evocative tableaux: a last supper, a hero’s tragic realisation, Cronus eating his children and castrating his father. The play’s social commentary remains subtle and unobtrusive.

The characters, sketched out with relative subtlety in the first act, are in the second “melted” into the overblown equivalents common in media portrayals. Carol (Tanwen Stokes) instantly loses half her clothes in the transition, becoming a hysterical nymphomaniac bimbo. This emphatic ‘male gaze’ portrayal comes to a head when she and her partner in dognapping, Marian (Hannah Ganecki), don bright pink balaclavas – because they’re girls, of course. The ambiguously Slavic Marek (Hugh Pearson), quietly weird in his first appearance, turns into a Borat-like ‘funny foreigner’ at the centre of a series of comic misunderstandings. Luke (Finn Burge) becomes a limp-wristed, shrill caricature of homosexuality who speaks almost entirely in innuendos. Handsome Adam (Luke Duncan) also loses clothing, as well as the ability to punctuate a sentence without thrusting suggestively. Even Louise (Paula Moehring), who initially comes across as intelligent and independent, is dulled into tedious credulity. It all feels very familiar, and the play forces us to feel uncomfortable with these traditional archetypes and modes.

The failure of a traditional archetype is indeed what drives the play’s tragedy. Without wishing to give too much away, Everybody Shut Up makes a powerful point about the expectation, borne of history, that women must live vicariously through their male partners: that his successes must be her successes, and that the maintenance of his fragile ego is her primary duty. The utter despair of a man confronted by the collapse of this dynamic despite his sacrifices upon its altar provides an unexpected emotional punchline to all the silliness, soaring out of nowhere to resolve this otherwise unresolvable play, and fulfilling Janet Productions’s promises about the kind of theatre they want to create: disillusioned, dysfunctional, and dyspeptic. Keep a weather eye out for their future offerings.

Everybody Shut Up’ runs at St Saviour’s Vicarage until June23rd . Find tickets and more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Nick Brown.