This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 11 May 2016.
This play begins with an apology. It’s the sort of metatheatrical student show styling it would be easy to snort at, were it not for the confidence and self-deprecating humour with which it was presented. “It’s probably quite self-indulgent, this whole exercise. But then, so is most theatre.” Raw, honest, and self-conscious to a fault, Pripyat feels like a hugely important piece of theatre, whose intimate and personal nature justifies some of its weirder experiments.
The play proper opens with two women in bed. One of them sits up and says “I’m dead.” These are Percy and Veronica, the same-sex couple around whom the play revolves. Percy is suffering from mental illness, and the play unfolds in a dreamlike, non-linear fashion as we learn more about Percy’s illness and the occasionally tragic, frequently hilarious history of their relationship.
A two-hander like this requires a strong pair of performers, and our two leads certainly deliver. Anushka Chakravarti is superb as Percy, melancholy and despairing for most of the play, but funny and engaging with it, subtly altering her performance as the character shifts through different time periods and mental states. Imo Allen is brilliant as her long-suffering partner Veronica, dry and understated in the comedic scenes, and absolutely devastating in the play’s more tragic moments. The two of them share an awkward, yet familiar chemistry, and together they firmly establish the play’s emotional through-line.
The subject of mental illness is handled with deftness and maturity, even if a few scenes feel a bit overwritten. Verity Bell’s script does the impossible and actually manages to do something interesting with audience interaction, as the play’s opening monologue/apology involves audience members giving each other the phone number for the Samaritans. That kind of trusting vulnerability is characteristic of the play overall, as it weaves a complex and engaging psychological portrait, even if the play feels a bit baggy at an hour and ten minutes long. The lighting and staging are also top-notch, although the use of video projection feels a bit gimmicky.
Pripyat is a messy, emotional play, and as such it’s not entirely without flaw. But those flaws are ultimately worth it for the sheer power of its narrative, and the skill with which the characters are portrayed. With UK mental healthcare severely under-funded, and with Oxford’s own welfare services in a sorry state, we desperately need this sort of play. Plus it features the single cleverest use of an onstage desk lamp I’ve ever seen.