“Utopia: a place or state of things in which everything’s perfect. The opposite of Dystopia.” The brilliant irony of this sentence is that one person’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia – and it is this self-defeating concept which directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts capture so well.
The opening of this play reminds us that past visions of utopia were always only visions, and never achieved. For example, Stalin ran away with Marx and Engel’s vision, and Northern Rock really does exemplify the failing of capitalism. So I forgive Utopia for being rough around the edges, because this concept has always been more about the idea than its history of shoddy executions.
No stone is left unturned as the cast explore different visions of utopia from a series of different people, including Chi Onwurrah MP, Hitler, Dylan Moran and Simon Stephens amongst others. Lucy Osborne’s set is a series of tattered blueprints of utopias to be tested out, and the actors all clad in white are blank canvases ready to test them. These visions range from Moran’s Who Was Ray, “inspired by every dinner party you didn’t find utopia at”, to an extra-terrestrial TV show in Onwurrah’s Humanity. And it makes me think: they’re all linked less by the concept of utopia, and more by failure. And there’s something simply very sad about that, which is captured by Michael Chaplin’s Sunnyglade, where Pamela Miles poignantly plays a politician with failed dreams to change the world.
However it’s a more ironic tone which dominates Utopia, overflowing in Arthur Darvill’s weirdly wonderful compositions and Marmion’s witty lyrics, which play comically off the drama. The persistent future tense of Stephens’s The Sun Will Come Out only highlights that utopia is an unobtainable dream. “Somehow” there will be no homophobia or racism the characters say, because of course you can’t imagine these things ever disappearing. The poetry of Stephens’s writing is beautiful and reflects the dreaminess of the concept, but drives the show towards a sentimental ending that is a little sickly sweet in comparison to the rest of the writing. In Alastair McDowall’s Propaganda, a cruel dictator suddenly sees the light. Why? Because millions of people have joined a Facebook group calling for his arrest, including Jay Z. It’s difficult to find a more fantastical image than a man who has brutally murdered people, crying “THANK YOU FACEBOOK” to the heavens, but sadly utopia is just that: a fantasy. Nothing more than a vision, an image, or a fiction written in a book. Richard Howell’s lighting subtly picks up on this, colouring the blueprint outlines of a window, a picture frame and a bookcase when acting out the series of possible utopias. And Jan Urbanowski’s video design gives these everyday objects eyes and mouths as they come to life in Rufus Hound’s amusingly animated trip (during A Deep Breath, words from Aldous Huxley’s Island).
In these short scenes, the cast very quickly reach into the humanity of their characters (particularly Sophie Myles and Pamela Miles), because that’s what this show is about. Utopia exists as a concept because human beings have always strived for more; something echoed in the quotes about utopia from famous figures. The whole ensemble show themselves to be extremely flexible and full of character in this fast-paced production, every individual excelling in their part. Laura Elphinstone injects a bright energy into every scene, and Rufus Hound (best known as a comic on our television screens) couldn’t have found a better show in which to make his stage debut. The Club of the Future (by various writers) showcases what he does best, comedy, but in other scenes he has the conviction of one of the strongest stage presences within this ensemble.
Utopia is a delightful concoction of song, dance, drama and hope. This is a thought-provoking production with its strangely charming imperfections, and executed with great attention to detail by Marmion and Roberts.
Utopia runs at the Soho Theatre until 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.