Review: Phoenix, English Touring Theatre
4.0Overall Score

As the country endures a second lockdown, Mike Bartlett’s audio drama revisits one of the biggest controversies of the first. His 17-minute piece probes the tensions between collective responsibility and self-prioritisation at the heart of Dominic Cummings’ unforgettable drive to Durham in May. It explores the psychology of arrogance and the abuse of power, even if it leaves you longing for deeper examination.

The short monologue of the man, Tim, is read by Bertie Carvel – so often effective at creating an unsettling, beguiling machismo. The gentle candour of his glib introspection is interspersed with flickers of broiling bitterness and sharp expletives. His indignation grows as he inveighs against being trapped in the confines of a relationship, his embittered protests of robbed freedom incinerating domestic harmony and social bonds.

He associates his marriage with the perceived restriction of agency, contrasting it against the hedonism of a previous affair, coupled with his refusal to age and lose the attraction and liberty of youth. All the while, Ben and Max Ringham’s background sound of crackling fire evokes Tim’s scorn and the fire pit he sits around. Tim tosses plastic wrappers into it, relishing the toxic fumes, his contempt polluting the world; it’s a small act of disobedience and wrongdoing which mirrors the rule-breaking of his drive up north. When the fire subdues, it’s replaced by a growing white noise: a menacing disquiet threatening in the background.

The fire is emblematic of the destructive ego that corrupts at the heart of these authority figures. There’s an obstinate fickleness to Carvel’s tone, an underlying narcissism that growls with his slight drawl. He glides over the vowels with the same insouciance as the sophistry he uses to outmanoeuvre the rules. This conveys a sense of conceited defiance and entitled masculinity – fusing together to transfer responsibility from himself to his wife – common to Bartlett’s work.

The solo perspective bores into the psyche but lacks wider commentary on the structures and systems which shore up these figures. It seems an uncharacteristic move for Bartlett to avoid more explicit political scrutiny; his critique here is allegorical, as suggested by the title which represents Tim’s assertion that there’s “an opportunity in any crisis” and his tenacious ability of self-preservation. Rather than the clearer satire of real figures in King Charles III, it therefore feels more speculative than forensic.

Its short length feels like a monologue that belongs within a wider play – like hearing an isolated soliloquy of Richard III, without discovering the implications of his resolve. Perhaps when theatres reopen, there’s a chance for this vivid character to rise out of this audio drama’s embers and into a longer, fully formed play.

Phoenix is an audio play, available online at the English Touring Theatre website.