About five minutes into Antler’s This Way Up, as the rest of the audience convulsed with laughter around me, I suddenly found myself feeling agitated, inexplicably irritated and vaguely angry. After studying the onstage action a little more closely, I soon identified my symptoms as jealousy. I mean, a group of aimless twenty-somethings struggling a little with life and love? A little cliché, you might say, but This Way Up is far more than just a mash-up of its indie influences – it’s funny, it’s clever and the attention to detail is infuriatingly impressive. Kicking off with a neat blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gag, This Way Up keeps the laughs coming in a kooky, bittersweet tale about what really probably happens after you graduate, whether you planned it or not.
The story is simple enough – after being rejected for the nth time, art graduate Alex (Daniela Pasquini) puts her painterly dreams slightly on hold and resorts to taking a job in a call centre, a role she adequately describes as talking all day on the telephone to “people who hate me”. It is in this rather grim scenario that she meets her cubicle neighbour, the slightly nerdy, vaguely useless but nonetheless quirkily charming Mark with whom she clumsily but inevitably falls in love. What’s refreshing about This Way Up is that typical crowd-pleasing office jokes are played out with renewed enthusiasm and a healthy measure of self-awareness. Perhaps it’s a little silly at times, but it’s not entirely light – the subtle script acknowledges all the alienation, uncertainty and general trauma of post-university living, and some rather cruel realities lurk under the cartoonish plotline concerning a suave yet slimy art gallery owner who Alex is a little too eager to please.
If you like your comedy surreal, sardonic and generally of the Green Wing school, then you’ll probably see the punch-lines coming a mile off. Luckily, that doesn’t make This Way Up predictable, instead, it’s comfortingly familiar, like having a joke around with your friends – you usually know what they’re going to say but it doesn’t stop you laughing and gosh darn, are they loveable. Daniela Pasquini as Alex makes for a refreshing heroine – smart, quick witted and (thank God) not actually looking for love, she has you rooting for her almost immediately and consistently holds her own against Nasi Voutsas’s awkwardly adorable Mark, despite his tendency to completely steal every scene he’s in with some brilliantly off-kilter comic timing and the ability to make unspecific vowel sounds convey a surprisingly diverse range of emotions. There’s strong support from Daniel Ainsworth as Wesley, This Way Up’s most madcap creation – a socially incapable supervisor who hasn’t grasped the concept of personal space or proper sentence structure, who is paired nicely with the delightful Jessica Stone as the kind-hearted but probably also overly-dedicated-to-using-military-metaphors-in-the-workplace manager Suzanne. Amongst your pretty much typical indie rom-com set up, the actors also sing, play instruments and basically look as if they’re having a lovely, lovely time.
Naturally, the homemade and wholesome look belies what we can safely assume was a lot of hard work. As with all good productions, swift set changes which must have taken real graft to perfect appear effortless, and dialogue that I imagine stemmed from laborious improvisation, re-writes and repetitive rehearsal comes across with feather-light ‘oh-I’ve-only-just-thought-of-that’ naturalism. Due credit must go to director Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart who has overseen her rather stellar cast with an assured yet playful eye and a cohesive, mature rationale.
Of course, it’s unashamedly feel good and perhaps a little too filmic for my liking. Compared with the gorgeously overblown theatrics of the cardboard set, the use of self-consciously cutesy ukulele songs over the scene transitions is the only thing that really grates – a slightly lazy way of setting up an atmosphere that also distracts the audience from some fascinating visuals as the performers bodies weave and settle into the cardboard, and engage in some impressive and modestly underplayed throwing and catching. With such high quality work on show, This Way Up’s rare failings are a little bit more glaring. The ending is a touch too neat and tidy for the rough-and-ready aesthetic and it doesn’t do anything entirely insane, as I sometimes wanted it to – nonetheless, what it does do, it does very well. By no means flawless, but rather ludicrously good, the shockingly young Antler Theatre Company prove themselves ones to watch for the future … but you should probably watch them now too.
**** – 4/5 stars
This Way Up played at C Venues as part of the Edinburgh Festival.