As absurdism is known for distorting the everyday in order to make its point, Closing the Gap Theatre has done well to seat the two plays that make up An Evening of the Absurd: Are We All Still Waiting For Godot? around the kitchen table. In both Breakfast with Chamberlain and Glory Days, Joe Allan’s company teases the familiar mannerisms and gentle colloquialisms that season our mealtimes, with the cast bringing in abstract characters and events in order to get their teeth into meatier topics.
Our starter, Breakfast with Chamberlain, joins a family as they gather around the radio to hear Neville Chamberlain declare the country in a state of war. With father, mother and two children, this household is the very picture of conventionality but, through the events that surround them, the company communicates a vague yet engaging statement about how ideas of normality are set to change. While the title of this evening promises an emphatically contemporary exploration of absurdism, there is little specifically modern about this first piece. Instead, set at the commencement of World War II, 14 years before Waiting for Godot premiered, this play is a brisk attempt to communicate the vast and traumatic emotional landscape of warfare.
As the British family drink their morning cups of tea in a scene of superficial insignificance, AJ MacGillivray’s Veteran obscures Chamberlain’s deliberate articulations as he struggles in vain to complete the rhyme “One, two, buckle my shoe / three, four, knock on the —- ”. As Chamberlain’s regretful tones layer against MacGillivray’s hysterical cries, words form a huge part of this production – but in the rhyme left unheard we hear a life cut short, the breakdown of cohesion and sanity, and the ruin of tradition. It’s chilling stuff, especially as our father leaves the family milieu to utter his first line, an unnerving echo of the veteran’s linguistic struggles. The most important word here is repeatedly unsaid and voluminously absent; significantly, as the word “door” remains unuttered, it’s hard to imagine this father finding an escape from his new world of trauma and discipline, or of returning home to the stable, private family life propped up by the kitchen table.
The second short piece assembles four distant acquaintances around a dinner table. Our uncomfortable friends make forced conversation, passing the time in a jarred commentary of the passing of time. Thankfully, the piece flags up the idea that no individual is one-dimensional, and Glory Days warms up a little as the characters bring in the other parts they play in their lives, with a deluded office manager, anxious academic, mysterious assistant and meddling counsellor embellishing the evening. While there’s great promise here, the characters come out as multifaceted but not full-bodies and, in both the staid dinner party and criss-cross of outside interactions, the piece could have benefited from being a little more sincere. But while a cynical take on socialising dampens an already flimsy storyline, Briony Wyatt gives a sharp performance as the counsellor who could do with an hour on the couch herself. There is also an artfulness to how the most minute gestures have been devised by the company, as characters roll their eyes, play with each other’s hair and navigate awkward silences.
Aside from their similar settings and incorporation of absurdist styles, there are few similarities between the two plays presented in this night, and what starts off as a celebration of absurdism loses its force as the style is so deliberately, studiously worn. This event’s name sounds like an academic paper, and the evening bears a well-read tone all the way through, making absurdism a theme in itself, more than a vehicle for greater ideas. In one particularly telling interaction in Glory Days, Wyatt’s character confesses that she and her colleagues use petty office politics as practise for their real work. As our actors twist absurdist styles around different situations that range from momentous to day-to-day, there is the sense that the company is doing a similar thing. Indeed, like our rehearsing advisor, there’s no doubt that Closing the Gap Theatre has built up the skills and completed the training, but it’s easy to imagine that the truly transformative performances are yet to come.
An Evening Of The Absurd: Are We All Still Waiting For Godot? is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until Wednesday 7 August. For more information and tickets, see the Camden People’s Theatre website.