Citric Acid, the new satirical comedy by Mina Ebtehadj-Marquis and Alex Newton, purports to tell the story of two hipsters and their lemonade stand clients, incorporating a number of grandiose themes including capitalism, religion, addiction, mental health, sexuality, innocence, and identity – a real challenge for a 40 minute play. A self-described “absurdist satire of the hipster generation”, the show had to balance its attacks carefully in order that they all be delivered clearly and effectively.
Sadly, this was not to be achieved. From a promising opening, which demonstrated a certain level of self-awareness, the satire was lost in the familiar tropes of issue-heavy student drama. At times the cast went to brave lengths to encourage audience participation, which worked well – the communion scene, which citrussed-up the liturgy (“Lemon of God” etc.), was particularly strong – and saw any initial spectator discomfort quickly eased. Furthermore, the audience’s willingness to carry out instructions illustrated well the tendency of people to unquestioningly follow hipster trends, which was a major concern of the work. However, these moments of innovative anarchy were undermined by the awkward and ill-fitting soliloquies of main characters Ben (Alexander Hartley) and Alice (Chloe Wall). Performed in a (comparatively) very still, very intense manner, these speeches preached the themes bluntly and stodgily in somewhat solemn language. This broke with the initial characterisation of the two protagonists, who had been portrayed as unsympathetic and vacuous when dealing with the customers of their lemonade stall. Nothing in their characters had suggested they would suddenly take wing with these lofty, idealistic speeches; nor did those speeches explain why they continued to run their stall with such vapid indifference. Nonetheless, Hartley should be commended for the ease with which he bridged the chasm between the two styles, maintaining Ben’s quirks despite the sudden change in tone.
The alternating between absurd and serious gave the impression of two plays being performed simultaneously, clashing with, rather than complementing, each other. This dissonance rendered the humour a little awkward, with jokes missing laughs owing to confusion as to whether or not lines were intended as serious or tongue-in-cheek. There was plenty of comic potential – for example, the unbearably trendy hipsters fangirling over an Australian Karl Marx – but the humour felt uncooperative in context. The point at which Houdini emerged from under the table with her ponytail and fleecy pyjama bottoms was the point at which the play crossed from surrealism to clumsy, random zaniness. The confusion in which it left its audience was visible.
The performance ran fluidly with drama-enhancing use of lighting and well-executed layering of live and recorded sound. Despite a few stumbles, the cast performed admirably. The dialogue seemed difficult to pull off naturally, and awkward moments, of which there were plenty, were caused by the language rather than the delivery. Furthermore, there were many interesting directorial quirks and touches, such as the clownish MC-type figure mocking the characters, or the moment of extreme, red-lit rage involving the cast shouting loudly. Many, however, did not recur, which only added to the fragmented feel of the piece. Considering this overall disjointedness, the performance felt more like a showcase of scenes and characters which were crammed uncomfortably into the brief runtime. There were still some enjoyable moments and the overall concept clearly required talent and imagination, yet all the various ideas suffocated under their own, piled-up weight. The play comes across as a script in need of editing. Ebtehadj-Marquis and Newton have the potential for a great show, but as it stands Citric Acid is a jumbled and unfocused effort that is very difficult to digest.