tue 23/07/2024

The Brink, Orange Tree Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Brink, Orange Tree Theatre

The Brink, Orange Tree Theatre

An expressionistic lesson in acute millennial anxiety

Keep calm and carry on: Jo (Alice Haig) tries to subdue colleague Nick (Ciarán Owens)Helen Warner

Generation Y are worriers. There’s certainly plenty to fuel that angst, from mounting debts, employment uncertainty and the ever-worsening housing crisis to international conflict and terrorism – as explored by a slew of recent articles (and the occasional “How anxious are you, doomed millennial?” quiz).

Brad Birch’s new 80-minute play occasionally wanders into that thinkpiece territory, but in the main, he and director Mel Hillyard have found a vividly theatrical form for this modern malaise.

Overworked history teacher Nick (Ciarán Owens, pictured below with Shvorne Marks) is plagued by dreams of his school consumed by a fiery bomb. Is this stress, depression, a prophetic vision? A symptom of underlying mental health issues, or a Government plot concealing something deadly beneath “the brink” on the playing fields? Effective cast doubling and an immersive rendering of this slippery piece blur children and adults, home and work, and psychological breakdown with paranoid conspiracy thriller. 

The Brink, Orange Tree TheatreIn Birch’s 2013 Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall, his twentysomethings rebelled against consumerist conformity. Here, they’re mired in the minutiae of 21st century living, but also fear they’re not “normal” – perhaps compared to their parents’ experience, or the ideal constructed on social media. Nick and girlfriend Chloe, still stuck in their student flat, grasp for traditional markers of adulthood, yet also fear ageing and death. But Nick’s preference for safe stasis instead of potentially risky change is itself dangerous: Birch compares him with the cat that sits in the middle of a busy road rather than dashing across it.

Hillyard, the recipient of the 2015 JP Morgan Emerging Director Award, deftly translates Birch’s offbeat poeticism. Her brisk production fluidly connects his short scenes, getting good use out of Hyemi Shin’s versatile glowing cubes and evoking locations through Carolina Valdés’s precise movement – Nick and Chloe bounce, jolt and twist in unison during a rush hour car ride. But the observational humour, though wryly astute, sometimes overrides distinct character voices in favour of stand-up riffs, and an operatic climax stretches metaphor to breaking point.

Increasingy clammy and skittish, Owens sympathetically communicates Nick’s struggle to cope with everyday life, as he’s alternately paralysed by choice and left feeling short-changed. Tom Gibbons’ soundscape is haunted by Bowie’s “Heroes”, and Nick is determined to wrest a significant, valiant act from an oppressive system. But do we protect children by revealing the world’s dangers or keeping them sheltered? Enacting revolution or maintaining the status quo? Nick veers between altruistic and troublingly narcissistic, as Birch examines what one generation owes to the next.

There’s strong support from Vince Leigh as a supercilious headmaster and bumptious businessman, Alice Haig as a no-nonsense teacher, and Shvorne Marks as self-possessed Chloe and the shy pupil whose bond with Nick edges into inappropriate territory. Shin covers the stage in ash, suggestive of the potential disaster underfoot, and Lizzie Powell’s lighting ramps up the horror. Boyd patronisingly advises tuning out this panic, as we do the hum of a fridge, but Birch makes a compelling argument for addressing millennial anxiety – whether reasonable or emotional – rather than burying it.


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