‘The Optimists’ at the Fringe review – “A farce with the potential to shine”

Well-received at the Oxford University New Writing Festival, I was (fittingly) optimistic about this second production of The Optimists. After a jolting start, the production picked up the pace in the second half, excelling in its moments of slapstick and physical comedy. And yet, it seems that the production’s main goal is to establish a legitimate setup for its tagline, ‘How do four communists split a bill of £6.71?’
The audience enters to an underwhelming set – curtains and a makeshift table – and hearty communist anthems, which return with gusto for scene changes. In some ways, the space was too big for the action; a smaller space would have increased the frenzied nature of the best scenes. Although the cast was large, many characters were on stage for barely ten minutes, resulting in a peculiar lack of development. The café owner, played with panache by Georgina Botham, had great potential but too little stage time to be fully explored. One particularly long-suffering cast member spent half an hour being carried around wrapped up in a sheet, for which I applaud her. Sadly, some escaping hair and visible clothes inadvertently revealed her identity, minimising any suspense.
The plot stumbles along without a sense of consequence, as the multiple strands struggle to mesh. A kidnap attempt fails and is subsequently forgotten about; a discovered affair garners no reaction from the cuckolded party; the much-touted Communist Society holds a single meeting and is barely revisited. This motley crew of acquaintances are drawn together by their love of communism – or rather, by their Russian heritage, which here seems to be interchangeable with communism – and begin to plot a revolution, resulting in an extended parody of communism and some of the liveliest writing. However, although this ‘neighbourhood Communist Society’ has the potential for brilliance, it plays out like a wannabe Monty Python sketch: all too short-lived, with little development beyond this one meeting, and not enough oomph to sustain the writing.
Plot catalysts are nonsensical: of course the best way to dismantle the bourgeois capitalist regime and start the revolution is to steal a (communist-themed) painting from a colleague – handily spurring a revelation which furthers the plot. And of course Katie’s boyfriend, the drip of a Johan, is so important to her that she simply has to introduce him to Daniel (despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to like Johan all that much) – handily spurring a revelation which furthers the plot. This absurdity might be rationalised by claiming The Optimists as a farce, but the direction lacked consistency in this regard, careering between straight play and caricature.
Where the play came into its own was its moments of physical comedy, with a team of talented actors. John Livesey as Sergei was particularly impressive, despite a sometimes questionable Russian accent, and worked well with Christopher Page and Ryan Lea as the central trio, with some amusing Chuckle Brothers-esque ‘to me, to you’ moments. El Blackwood was engaging as Tatiana, although her character’s fixation with getting her citizenship painted her as a little one-dimensional. Imo Reeve-Tucker’s portrayal of eco warrior student Katie was entertaining, and the suspense surrounding her connection to Daniel was well maintained throughout, culminating in a satisfying and unexpected twist.
Farces work best when the pace never drops. This play’s best moments were truly great, and testament to a talented team, but too far between. With a little more consistency and commitment to the genre, The Optimists could shine.