Welcome to Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill, a withering bar set in the dusty bowels of a train station. Kick off your shoes, cock your pistol and be prepared for a bizarre turn of fantastical events. There, you’ll fit right in.
It begins with the disruptive arrival of The Man, a straight-talking bureaucrat with a whiff of John Cleese. The borders are closed, countries are at war, and every movement is being meticulously documented, a pursuit that leads our official into the arms of Old Joe’s. When he attempts to establish the owner of the club, fiery-haired (and fiery-minded) drag queen, Petra, gestures towards Joe. Joe, by the way, is an empty birdcage. Oh and, not only does he run station bars that sound like they were named in erotic millennial slang, he can also talk to the dead.
The situation is only confounded further with the appearance of Vojta, a boyish, lost-looking dictator who clearly wasn’t hugged enough as a child. As the trio begin to barrel around the stage in a fit of contention, three foreigners walk into the bar: Irish refugee Maura, a nameless Spanish drifter, and Finnish bandit Naomi. The impromptu gathering quickly has Old Joe’s feeling like a haven again, the only place on Earth a group of immigrants can meet and travel without a visa. It is the same haven that, only a year ago, was ripped apart by a terrorist bomb. Nevertheless, we quickly become deeply mixed up in the lives of our travellers, whose tales take us on a journey through love, death and hope.
Only the brazen walk the fine line between the gentle mockery of current events and the scorning of those that hit a little too close to home. Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill stomps that line wearing ironclad army boots. The subjects it takes on are highly sensitive, albeit rarely out of the news, frequently honing in on immigration and terrorism. The place names in this dystopian future (such as North West, East Two, West Three) were conceived by the common belief that “dystopian” is synonymous with “completely devoid of creativity”, but it’s hard not to see this as a very possible future shaped by Brexit ideals and increasingly right-wing movements.
The plot, however, is increasingly difficult to hold onto. At times it is more like an unruly toddler – turn your back for a second and it will chase off into the distance, leaving you confused and frantic in its shadow. No character is without a fascinating backstory, but due to the limited hour-long running time, we are only afforded brief insights before the script is ushered onto its next subject. We zip through Maura’s X-Men-esque mind abilities, burn past The Drifter’s ever-changing identity, and breeze over Vojta’s crushing daddy issues. It is playwrights Stephanie Degreas and Raphael Ruiz who have to take the fall for this; having created such vastly intricate characters that we only want to learn more about.
Riding off the back of such a strong and complex script, it seems redundant for the characters to rely on props as much as they do. For example, they spend at least half the show talking down the barrel of a gun. While this is somewhat effective in triggering suspense, it quickly becomes a throwaway gimmick they each jump on when things don’t go their way.
The performances, too, vary wildly. Co-writer Ruiz is up and down as Vojta, presumably the only dictator to spend his free time loitering unguarded in a grubby club. In spite of his scriptwriting abilities, he is easily outshone by the likes of Judith Von Orelli (Naomi) and Stefanos Dimoulas (Petra). Eve Niker is notably entrancing as the grief-ridden Maura; her hollowed eyes and crushed form carrying all the weight of a devastated widow.
This play feels like a long series of mixed-genre books packed into one heavily saturated hour of theatre. Every character could warrant their own dedicated play, but even the confines of a stage wouldn’t do their complex backstory justice. In many ways, Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill has been thwarted by its own ambition. Given more space to spread its wings, however, and perhaps it could bloom into something really quite unique.
Photo: Be•wilder Theatre Company