Katie Sayer’s The C-Bomb, playing at the BT studio, showcases new writing at its very best. Fresh, playful and above all funny, it captures the follies and foibles of our modern age.
The subject matter is undeniably unusual. Chloe (played with verve by Alma Prelec) has a problem. And that problem is suspected chlamydia. Impulsive and flamboyant, she decides to throw a party for her past flings, hoping to take each one of them aside, warn them of the risks and urge them to get tested. But life, of course, is rarely as neat as fiction and the episode of Midsomer Murders, which the characters long to watch, amusingly remains firmly in the background as Chloe’s own personal drama takes centre stage.
We are sucked in from the very moment we find our seats. Serenaded by the familiar strains of ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and wonderfully corny selections from ABBA (all hand-picked by sound designer, William Hayman), we are immediately immersed in Chloe’s world of club nights, kettle chips and cheap vino. Before the play has even begun, we know we are going to heed Chloe’s wise advice of always “watching things for young people”. Sayer’s script sparkles with witty in-jokes and well-handled nods to everyday Oxford life. From sly references to Toto’s ‘Africa’ and subject drinks, to jokes about Immanuel Kant and a humorous account of a romantic encounter at the tragically dull Economics Foundation, there is something here for everyone.
And the actors largely bring their roles to life, often finding a richness and humanity in characters who could all too easily be played as little more than the physical embodiment of recognisable stereotypes. Showcasing her directorial flair, Agnes Pethers transforms the stage into a tableau of modern life. As each past boyfriend enters through the bead curtain to join the assembling group in the sitting room, the composition becomes increasingly complete. If Dave (Jake Rich) is an earnest and priggish high achiever and Jonny is a quinoa-munching vegan millennial, then Russell (Flinn Andreas) is a wild party-lover; if Albert (Albert McIntosh) is the socially conservative right-wing son of an aristocrat, then Jack is a straight-talking sporty everyman. Each modern character archetype is represented. And yet the protagonists nevertheless feel fleshed out and whole due to the commitment of the actors, who strike a balance between emotional authenticity and playing for laughs. The only exception is Harold, the pensioner (Aryan Coram), who feels unjustly overlooked. Appearing only briefly to deliver the odd line, he is not quite given the space to come to grips with the role, which is a missed opportunity in a play otherwise filled with deeply memorable characters.
But The C-Bomb’s greatest strength lies in its brilliant self-awareness. Chloe, after all, orchestrates her own drama. Taking each past boyfriend aside, she repeatedly rehearses and refines her confession, masterfully creating her own tension and suspense. And this meta-theatre is not just entertaining, it is also pleasingly thought-provoking. When Jonny dubs the play, “a fascinating tale of friendship, betrayal, secrecy and microbes”, and Kat (played with flair by Phoebe Griffith) tells us that the story “can be summarised in ten seconds”, we are left with the impression that the beauty of theatre lies in its very artificiality. Drama takes well-established truths and reenergises them, as Sayer demonstrates with moving simplicity when she concludes the play with the clear message that we should all just “be nice to each other”. What better lesson could theatre teach us in our fraught modern times?
A witty, brilliantly self-conscious examination of the way we live now, “The C-Bomb” is a thrilling piece of new writing. Slickly produced by Eve Stollery, packed with laughs, it provides the perfect antidote for those mid-term blues.