Reviewed by Oliver Wake, during previews
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new play Boom is difficult to describe, thanks to its high-concept premise and unusual plot, the intricacies of which I’m trying to avoid spoiling for you here. It is set in an underground research laboratory, where young scientist Jules (Will Merrick) has arranged to meet student Jo (Nicole Sawyerr) for anonymous no-strings sex. Or so Jo thinks. Jules’ online advert promised “sex to change the course of the world”. She took it as bragging; he meant it literally. From studying the habits of fish in central America, Jules has predicted the apocalypse for life on Earth. It’s in seven minutes.
The play’s early scenes are perhaps the most compelling, with sparkling dialogue and a rich vein of humour as Jo’s anticipated one-night-stand turns into a nightmare of global proportions. The play is largely a two-hander, punctuated by the occasional beat on a drum by a mysterious woman dressed like a museum attendant who sits in a corner outside the action. We later learn she is Barbara (Mandi Symonds) and as the play progresses she becomes increasingly vocal, commenting on the action.
Barbara’s role initially seems redundant and, frankly, a little irritating, but as the play progresses her interjections become progressively more frequent and extensive, and she has some very funny lines. As her true role slowly emerges, the real significance of her presence becomes clear. She isn’t merely commenting on what we see but controlling it. She provides a framing device which is essential for the play’s conclusion. This isn’t ideal, and I would have been happier with a more ‘straight’ presentation of the story, but it’s had to see how Sinn Nachtrieb could have reached the conclusion he wanted without this device. To say why would, alas, ruin the ending for you.
This brings us to the challenge of the drama. Sinn Nachtrieb has chosen evolution as his theme, but as a process relying on the passing of many generations, it’s an inherently undramatic subject and he has had to be creative in drawing it into the action. Natural selection and survival prospects are woven throughout the script, from Jules’ family’s susceptibility to premature death to Jo’s freak medical condition that prevents her walking into dangerous situations. Unless I missed an explanation, the latter seems a coincidence too far given that Jo’s (rather than any other young woman’s) presence in Jules’ ‘experiment’ has come about arbitrarily. Possibly that’s the point – that random factors are part of evolution – but it seems overly convenient in dramatic terms. The greatest evolutionary irony is that Jules, who has elected himself as one-half of the couple who will keep the human race going after the devastation above, is gay. He has at least equipped his bunker with a turkey baster, much to Jo’s disgust.
Boom becomes somewhat ponderous during its later scenes and could perhaps have benefited from losing ten minutes. While clearly amusing the audience at the performance I attended, Barbara’s exaggerated histrionics towards the end were overdone and became rather tiresome after a while. Sawyerr and Merrick remain impressive throughout and seem to have a genuine rapport at the times their characters aren’t at each other’s throats.
It’s hard to formulate a final opinion on this play. It’s intriguing and frequently, if inconsistently, very entertaining. With its abstract theme, unusual construction and bizarre conclusion, it’s unlike much else you’ll see on the stage this summer. For fringe theatre, that’s a recommendation of a sort.
Shanine Salmon’s press night review can be found here