They say that art reflects life, but I wouldn’t say Baggage does. Baggage follows the trials of online dating: the freaks and frauds, and general disappointments made possible by the so-called technological revolution. According to writers John Muirhead and Mike Charlesworth, the internet hasn’t made dating easier, but much harder, as we can manipulate how we present ourselves. This is very true. Yet I have several friends who are in successful relationships that began online, and the quotes that Baggage projects would support this, as statistics show more and more married couples meeting online. My point is: Baggage is an awfully pessimistic play and I think this tone reflects the two-dimensionality of the writing.
James (Charles De’Ath) and Geraldine (Suzanne Shaw) are online dating addicts, who introduce their reluctant friends Adam (Richard Mylan) and Sandy (Nicola Stapleton) to this world and live to regret joining. De’Ath merely showcases that it’s not hard to play a chauvinist pig, and Shaw, that people who really like green are plain odd. There’s no more depth to these characters, except that James has cancer, which is perhaps a poor attempt to drum up some sympathy for his repulsive character.
And there’s little more to the characters of Adam or Sandy, who are just pretty nice people. Disenchanted with the world of online dating, they both happen to take a trip to Peru and lose their luggage at the airport at the same time. As they reflect upon their experiences and realise they both happened to date one another’s best friends, together they come to terms with their emotional baggage. The acting itself seems forced, in the main because the characters are unrealistically flat, although Polly Eachus does make the most of her bit parts by creating various comedic characters. Mylan, at least, is endearing to watch and makes his character likeable. This exemplifies a key problem with Baggage: it’s difficult to care about a story if you don’t care about the characters. It’s a neat little plot, but leaves no real impact.
Furthermore, the story struggles to flow, stopping and starting as the scene changes every few minutes. The scene also occasionally splits to show that Adam is telling this story to James after the event, but does so awkwardly so Adam is moving randomly from up stage to down stage to comment on the scene with an increasingly drunken James. Projections are used to set scenes so the moving around of props is minimal, which was a smart move considering how many there are. What’s irritating about Baggage is that director Audrey Cooke hasn’t appreciated the little details of the production – e.g. the departure board doesn’t change during scenes, the electronic devices the actors are chatting on aren’t even turned on, and therefore the production looks as static as it feels.
I’ve also yet to see a show which uses a comedy bed until seeing Baggage, or rather a bed that breaks during the scene. Mylan made the most of this like a trooper, and really it was only beneficial to the scene, as the script doesn’t receive the laughs it’s obviously after. The writing exhibits wordplay and wit, but not a flair for it, as the jokes are occasionally too obvious and not laugh out loud funny. I find laughter within a theatre depends upon the crowd; the laughter can only flow if one person is brave enough to start it. Baggage definitely belongs to the genre of comedy and it’s a little awkward that no one does start this, or else the atmosphere would be brighter.
Baggage is a flawed execution of a play that looks like it could deal with a contemporary topic, but is more like a pedestrian amble through the stranger side of online dating that pokes the occasional fun.
Baggage is playing at the Arts Theatre West End until 6 October. For more information and tickets see the Arts Theatre website.
Image by Alastair Muir.