Catastrophists, White Bear Theatre
Review by Oliver Wake
“The end is nigh … Bring a bottle.”
Using money inherited following the convenient death of Harry’s granddad, Raf and Harry have bought a holiday home in the Cotswold. They weren’t aware their neighbours were a survivalist cult living in a field. After Harry urinates on their teepee on the way home from the pub, there is only one thing they can do to make amends: invite them to a dinner party. The scene is set for a dark comedy about the clash of lifestyles and the impending apocalypse.
Essentially, Jack Stanley’s Catastrophists is Abigail’s Party with survivalists for neighbours. Raf and Harry are the upwardly mobile young couple whose aspirational lifestyle encompasses weekend breaks in the country, flatbread and guacamole, and Lakeland kitchen knives. Peter and Claudia, from the survivalist commune, have opted out of the rat race following the recession, which may prefigure apocalypse, and (apparently) shun alcohol and refined sugar. Raf is tempted by the notion of joining the commune but Harry becomes increasingly antagonistic towards it.
Elizabeth Donnelly as Raf is the perfect modern Beverley, and she gets the lion’s share of the best lines and gags. Indeed, she’s by far the best thing in this play and is always very watchable. Patsy Blower as Claudia adopts a strange, exaggeratedly mannered delivery of her lines but it’s never clear what this is supposed to denote. Is it merely an indication of her eccentricity, or perhaps a symptom of a deeper mental instability?
The early scenes are amusing, with witty dialogue and just the right level of awkwardness when the guests arrive. However, the pay soon runs out of steam and becomes obscure and muddled. Spoilers now follow, so skip to the last paragraph if you’re considering seeing this play. There’s a lengthy sequence relating to a goat which Harry has stolen while ostensibly out buying a dessert, which doesn’t go anywhere and as far as I can see achieves nothing bar getting Peter and Claudia offstage for a few minutes mid-dinner party. This happens at just the moment the play needs instead to be increasing its pace and working towards a climax.
As well as goat-napping, Harry has been to the pub where he claims, he’s met an ex-commune member who has revealed that the community is really a secret social experiment. Peter and Claudia deny this, and that they wanted to entice Raf to join them as part of a breeding programme. It’s never clear whether Harry’s report is indeed accurate, and when the apocalypse does inevitably arrive at the play’s end, Peter and June elect to remain in Harry and Raf’s home rather than return to their community. Why? Have they accepted that their commune is a con? Is it pragmatic realisation that a house is a better bolt hole than a tent in a field? Perhaps we’re supposed to draw our own conclusions, but to me, it’s confusing and dramatically unsatisfying.
I should declare that I saw the play on its opening night and my engagement with it was slightly marred by teething problems of fluffed lines and technical mishaps (notably a prolonged lighting failure). Undoubtedly it will be technically more accomplished as the run progresses, and potentially the script may evolve also. With work to par down the ponderous second half and clarify the loose ends, Catastrophists could be an intriguing and engaging play. But on the evidence of the opening night, it is currently overlong, confusing and inconclusive.