The signs are excellent when you enter the Finborough’s latest set. It’s instantly, vividly a cramped, tatty copy shop, with a cheap metal door, and cluttered counter face-on to the single bank of audience seats. Small touches succeed in expanding the space and creating the atmosphere: pigeon-holes of infinite stationery; outdated binders and hardware around the entire auditorium; hectoring cheap signs about paying upfront; and a lone, hopeful Obama poster almost unbearably poignant. I leaned back in the top row, and discovered I had rested my head against an obsolete HP DeskJet. The nostalgia for crap workplaces past is instant and overwhelming – more universal than its specific Harlem setting might suggest.
The cast, too, is spot on. James Anthony Tyler’s new play is described as a three-hander between sparky, ambitious Xiomara (Rachel Handshaw), office jester/old hand Isabel (Shyko Amos), and college boy newcomer Yusuf (Ammar Duffus). They share a workplace in uncomfortable proximity and are thrown into escalating discomfort by a promotion and the ensuing power shifts. All three actors inhabit the roles from the outset, creating believable relationships as well as individual characters. Although their energy dips just before the interval, the second half vibrates with power as the situation unravels. Duffus, in particular, has a wonderful range of expression as the confused interloper; the electric play between Handshaw and Amos works whether they are best of friends or venomous enemies. I found, though, that lowly-billed Mrs. Amenze (Miquel Brown), brought a welcome and almost-equal fourth dimension to the play: the only character who steps out of the rat-race, and whose focus is more communitarian than cash-based. Danilo (Hermeilio Miguel Aquino) rounds out the cast, more as a catalyst than a contributor. The office printer, sinisterly malfunctioning, acts as a chorus.
What about the play, though? It’s angry. I’ve seen this described as a comedy, but it’s played (rightly) as a tragedy full of jokes. There’s intense claustrophobia in this unlovable workplace. At the interval, there was no applause, and not because the audience were unappreciative. It was a deep mental dive from which we hadn’t resurfaced in time for clapping. Themes of exploitation and parallels with slavery abound, especially effective in mute movement between each act; the text can be a little didactic in pointing up the same. Race is a huge issue, uniting and dividing the characters both; each identity is given due respect and due anger. It’s no coincidence that the only white character is the unseen, all-powerful Mr. Timmons, an overmighty Oz whose word dictates, but who never deigns to visit this lowly place.
But this is fundamentally a play about economics, exploitation, and the terror of falling without a social safety net. An old story, perhaps but raw with contemporary issues. Yusuf’s steepling student loan repayments brought a groan of recognition. The copy shop fiscal stakes sometimes feel too low for drama (I’m not gripped by a disagreement about 75 cent copy charges), and yet the stakes for the employees are horribly high. These are trapped people dependant on insufficient income in jobs none truly wants, all too aware that worse work situations are out there. (Sound familiar?)
Hope through solidarity is raised, and yet there are far too many ways to divide this group, divisions which gape as the play progresses. Dolphins, apparently, do it better. I left feeling it might be best if we give the world over to the cetaceans.
Dolphins and Sharks is on at the Finborough Theatre until 30 September: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2017/dolphins-and-sharks.php. Tickets from £16.