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Review of Edgar and Annabel and Joseph K

Double Dystopia presented us with two short plays in one evening about power and powerlessness. Those with power were either not seen or hardly seen: what we saw instead is what it is like to have little or no power.

In the first play, Edgar and Annabel, a seemingly normal couple are preparing for some form of rebellion against an unseen, all-powerful state, but they are the ones who are really under threat.

In a wonderfully theatrical ploy, the couple read their dialogue from hand-held scripts. Initially, this causes some consternation among the audience: have the actors not learned their lines? However it soon becomes apparent that that they are actually reading from scripts provided by their revolutionary masters to conceal their true intentions from a surveillance-obsessed government whose agents are bugging the flat – and every flat in the country.

This theatrical conceit places great demands on the actors, with the couple having to say or do one thing while thinking or doing something very different. All the while, they have to make us care enough about the people behind the masks to make the play’s powerful ending work, when we realise how tragically expendable the characters are.

In the lead roles, Joanna Gleeson and Robert O’Neill rose outstandingly to this challenge with compelling portraits of individuals forced to abandon their individuality and counter the lies of the state by creating a fiction of their own. Laura Ings Self made a sinister handler for the pair, while BLT debutant Raphael Olumole was well cast as a replacement Edgar.

The second play, Joseph K (based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial), shows how a man in what seems a secure position gradually be comes utterly insecure, as his life appears to fall apart. This being Kafka country, the reasons for K’s troubles – which start with what seems to be a random arrest – are not made explicit. However, given that he’s a banker who treats subordinates with contempt, colleagues with suspicion and takes advantage of vulnerable women, could it be that K’s accuser is his own conscience and we are witnessing a self-propelled descent into paranoia?

Treading this Kafkaesque tightrope is tricky for any actor, but Joe Dominic did it with ease, complementing his appearance as a preppy house visitor in Edgar and Annabel where his tuneless karaoke was a comic highlight.

He was supported by a cast who brought this dystopian nightmare vividly to life via a gallery of all-too-recognisable modern horrors; a lawyer whom no-one can understand, a customer help operative who can’t help and a legal department run by procedures that even its employees can’t make head nor tail of.

The structure of Joseph K – seventeen characters played by a cast of five – requires actors to switch roles quickly, often in consecutive scenes, which could have been a little confusing. Happily, this was avoided through strong characterisation, with Laura Ashenden’s ‘computer says no’ customer service centre operative and Glenn Aylott’s infuriatingly incomprehensible lawyer being particular standouts. Glenn also paired with Tom Dignum as the sushi-eating arresting officers, while Dad Needham, making his debut at BLT, served as Laura’s sidekick from Customer Services as well as contributing to the voice-overs that punctuated the show, including radio phone-ins and an automated computerised law firm.

The overall sense, even given the sinister content, was that Double Dystopia was done with imagination and just the right light tone and with some wonderful comic timing. Neither piece was played for laughs, but neither was done too earnestly either.

It was clear that directors Jane Lobb (Edgar & Annabel) and Patrick Neylan (Joseph K) had worked closely to make sure that both plays flowed fluently in the Bar, with the same space serving as both a plausible kitchen in Edgar and Annabel and a variety of venues in Joseph K, from K’s flat to his office, the lawyer’s residence and the mad glazier’s lair.

Far from being constricted by the Bar’s compact dimensions, the intense, face-to-face exchanges and claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in both plays were heightened by the intimate environment in which they were performed.

It made you wonder if this production would have played anything like as well on the Main Stage – which is surely the mark of a truly great Bar show.

Taylor Green, Paul Campion