Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that the gated community where we were staying would be full of the kind of nerd who wants to make things more difficult for everyone else, and not just for himself. […]

A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement pan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Philip Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Advertisements

Review: Now We Are Six Hundred by James Goss and Russell T Davies

This article first appeared on DoWntime on 14 September 2017.

It’s a fair question why this book exists. With Doctor Who off the air until Christmas and Jodie Whittaker on the horizon, the decision to release a poetry collection, of all things, is  inscrutable. Its author, James Goss, has been writing Doctor Who spinoff material for more than a decade, and its illustrator is Russell T Davies, who famously revived the series in 2005. The result is a book that feels stuck in the past, and its overall tone is wildly confused. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of both Doctor Who and poetry in general. Now We Are Six Hundred is a wasted opportunity, a funny little footnote on the way to better things.

Of course, it’s the illustrator who is the real draw here. The reasons for this are obvious, but Davies does demonstrate some real artistic talent. His style is somewhere between Martin Brown and Pete McKee, with a scratchy line and exaggerated facial features, which help create a sense of playfulness. As on television, he has a solid line in visual gags, with highlights including K9 sitting on Snoopy’s kennel, and Four using his scarf as a lasso. But he also manages to inject some real pathos. His illustrations of a lonely and abandoned Sarah Jane, or a nostalgic yet forgetful Donna Noble are genuinely moving, and demonstrate real emotional range. Judged solely as a vehicle for Davies’s illustrations, Now We Are Six Hundred is a fabulous success.

Unfortunately, the accompanying poems are uniformly dreadful. Goss bases many of them on the work of A.A. Milne (the title refers to Milne’s Now We Are Six) placing the book firmly in the realm of children’s literature. But there’s very little sense that Goss has engaged with children’s poetry, or indeed poetry in general, beyond 1927. His attention to metre is sloppy at best, and he has a knack for ear-scraping forced rhymes.

Take the poem ‘Absences’, about schoolteacher Clara Oswald disappearing for an adventure, and then reappearing to the consternation of her class. This is prime subject matter for children’s poetry – one can imagine Michael Rosen or Andy Tooze writing something very witty in exactly this vein – but Goss squanders the premise with this final stanza:

“Miss Clara

Slipped back in the

Middle of a lesson. “Now, where were we?”

Where were you?!?” “What’s the hurry?

I’ve been in space, met Ghandhi for curry,

Saved the human race, s’okay don’t worry

And no, don’t thank me.”

Oh Miss Clara

Miss, this time

You’ve gone too far-er.”

Setting aside the appalling last line, the misspelling of Gandhi’s name, and indeed the crassness of ‘meeting him for curry’, what’s most annoying about this poem is the disservice it does to Clara as a character. Throughout the series Clara is framed in terms of both literature and childhood; she’s an English teacher, she refers to ‘basic storytelling’ in explaining things to the Doctor, and her second story involves her literally taking a leaf out of a children’s book. This makes her perfect for a poem like this. But she’s also defined as “a bossy control freak” with a pathological need to keep things in order. So when Goss has her casually disappear for weeks in the first stanza (“Miss Clara?/ Where are yer?”) it simply doesn’t wash. The tension between Clara’s desire for adventure and her need to maintain responsibility is what drives her relationship with the Doctor, and indeed Doctor Who. To have her carelessly swanning off is not just out of character, it misunderstands what makes her character interesting.

This tendency to ignore thematic depth in favour of shallow blandishments is best exemplified in the climactic poem ‘Friend Ship’. It attempts to pay tribute to the Doctor’s companions over the last fifty years, and it does this by simply listing their first names:

“Rose, Jack and Jackie

Martha, (horse) and Mickey.

 

Donna, Donna, Donnaaaa!

(Never forgetting her)

 

Amy, Winston, Rory

River (that’s another story).”

The problem with this list is twofold. First, it relies entirely on the reader knowing who all these characters are, and in quite a lot of detail. We need, for instance, to remember that Donna’s final story involved having her memory wiped, that Winston Churchill appeared in two episodes nearly seven years ago, and that a horse appeared in a single episode more than eleven years ago. No problem for the dedicated adult fan, but surely baffling for the children this book is ostensibly aimed at. But this list also fails by the standards of the continuity-minded adult fan, who will instantly point out that Winston wasn’t ‘really’ a companion, and that the horse’s name was Arthur. Goss has failed to think through his readers’ experience here, and so the book ends up feeling vapid and cynical to an older fan, and likely confusing to a younger one.

But even worse is the poem’s final couplet:

“Then Nardole, Bill and River too

And,

MOST IMPORTANTLY

There’s

YOU.”

This is not just trite and unimaginative, it actively talks down to its supposed audience, something Doctor Who never did under Russell T Davies (or for that matter Steven Moffat). The worst that can be said of Now We Are Six Hundred is that in its fealty to the letter of Doctor Who, it is almost antithetical to its spirit.

The sad thing is, this project could so easily have been better. There are surely dozens of published poets who would love to play with the wealth of concepts (and the wide audience) Doctor Who has to offer. Hell, there are hundreds of writers and artists online doing exactly that, mostly for free. So instead of wasting a tenner on this book, I recommend you go and follow some of them. Particularly good are unknown-companion-poems, Johannesviii, James Wylder, and Jonne Bartelds, all of whose work is far more stylish, and far more deserving of support than Goss and Davies’s efforts. At the end of the day, the value proposition of this book is far less than that of simply opening a Tumblr account.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.

 

The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.

 

Trolling the Grim Reaper: a Tale of Two Everymen

A few months ago, I opened Medieval Drama: An Anthology. It was uncomfortably close to my final exams, and I had decided to familiarise myself with Everyman. Everyman is a play from the 1510s, about a hapless dope at the mercy of forces beyond his control, who, after gradually abandoning his normal life, calmly faces the solemn ritual of his own demise. My study, as ever, was semi-autobiographical. Or so I flattered myself.

After that, some stuff happened.

Yesterday, I opened Everyman: a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy. The passage of the aforementioned stuff meant I was now free to read as I saw fit, and in between the cover letters and the CV-polishing, I decided to see if Duffy’s version lived up to the original.

Everyman, for those unfamiliar, is a play about death. But it’s also about some other things, including Catholic doctrine, family dynamics, environmental destruction, and the music of Meghan Trainor. In both versions, it is not interested in beginnings. Only in endings.

But let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Everyman in no way ‘needed’ this adaptation. Dr Liv Robinson has talked about the paratext for Duffy’s 2015 National Theatre production, and its irritating tendency to treat Duffy as somehow ‘rescuing’ the play from its original context. Duffy’s script is indeed impressive, and by mounting such a high profile production she undoubtedly gave the play some much-needed attention. But the original Everyman is an astounding work of art on its own terms. That its own terms are not those of twenty-first century theatre (or of overpriced paperbacks from Faber & Faber) is not the fault of the text itself.

The original Everyman is melancholic atmosphere; Duffy’s is melancholic freak weather. The original is didactic, but its content is curiously benign. Greg Walker points out that, unlike most medieval moralities, Everyman has no vice figures, “nor is there, strictly speaking, any real dramatic tension”. This is not a world of epic conflict, but quiet acceptance and well-meaning abandonment. The play’s most moving moment comes when Everyman simply states:

How sholde I be mery or gladde?

For fayre promyses men to me make,

But whan I have moost nede they me forsake.

I am decyved; that maketh me sadde.

But for all that sadness, the play is full of odd humour (or odd to this modern reader, at least). Such as when Everyman asks:

EVERYMAN: My Cosyn, wyll you not with me go?

COSYN: No, by Our Lady! I have the crampe in my to!

Everyman is a play about accepting death, specifically within a Christian worldview. Everyman must scourge himself (“In the name of the Holy Trynyte,/ My body sore punyshed shall be”), and then seek absolution from a priest who remains offstage. The action is static, austere, funereal, concluding with Everyman simply laying down and dying, still delivering the play’s Message:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,

How they that I loved best do forsake me

Excepte my Good Dedes, that bydeth truly.

It’s an attitude, if not alien to modern sensibilities, at least considerably removed from them. That a recent production of its acceptance of punishment, followed by death, resonated so strongly with the students of Oxford University, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Duffy’s version understandably ditches the sermonising, though she retains a surprising amount of the original plot, and updates the pithy humour of the original. My favourite moment comes when Everyman (or ‘Ev’ to his friends) tries to explain his problems to his sister:

EVERYMAN: I met death.

SISTER: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.

Duffy’s other updates are largely positive. We first meet Everyman drunk at a party, vomiting into a bucket held by a female cleaner, who turns out to be God herself. This adds a pleasing class-consciousness, particularly given Everyman’s portrayal as nouveau riche playboy.

Several of Duffy’s additions are hard to judge on the page; the rapping prologue reads cringily, but could well have been effective on stage. The use of pop music (including ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘All About That Bass’) is similarly difficult to judge without seeing the performance, though the “storm scene” towards the end, cued by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ is pleasingly reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.

The film’s final image feels curiously apt: a young man, exhausted, slumped in a chair. His friends departing. His magic expended. But still the old potential for escape. The right words in the wrong order. That guy is dead now.

Duffy’s main divergence, of course, is the ending. Absent the explicitly Christian worldview, her Everyman achieves peace through more personal, less grandiose means.

He says thank you.

Thank you, thank you,

for the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful, the cool, the crap,

for discord and harmony, rough, smooth,

for the fragrant or foul, the fucking lot of it.

My whole life all I’ve ever wanted

was to be alive; awaken

to the light and air of here.

This is his redemption. Not confession, but confessional. But these are not quite his last words. His final utterance comes in conversation.

DEATH: My work is done,

but let me tell you, son,

I’ve loved the hunt.

EVERYMAN: Can I tell you something?

You’re a cunt.

He then slips gently into that good night. The play’s final image is Death, alone on stage, finally realising the insult:

Help me out here –

did my feckin ears deceive me

or did your man call me a cunt?

This is a total affront.

Where’s the respect?

I’m to pick up my scythe

and exit stage left?

This is Duffy’s answer to Everyman’s dilemma. We cannot outrun death. But we may be able, in a purely rhetorical sense, to get the better of it. To shame, bamboozle, and troll it. The last enemy that shall be DESTROYED is Death.

I’m coming towards the end now. A personal essay is like an English degree; the good ones always know just when to stop.

Listen: I’ve got something to say.

Never mind.

Review: Skylight

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 14 June 2017.

It was my last ever Oxford play review, and I’m glad I went out with a good one.

Student theatre can often be juvenile. In its weird, earnest, experimental brilliance, it sometimes feels lacking in emotional maturity, but Skylight is the antithesis of that. Its ad copy promises “a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies”, but this is a lie. Skylight is not a Bitingly Satirical Play about Politics. It is a play about three people, stupid, brilliant, a little bit broken, and all the pain and messiness that brings. The play’s naturalism feels hugely refreshing, even vital, as we close another academic year: this is the most human play Oxford has seen for months.

The play unfolds in a shabby little flat belonging to Kyra, a young woman working in the rougher parts of London. We open with her returning, exhausted, after a hard day’s work. As the evening progresses she is visited first by a young man named Edward, who has fallen out with his father, and later by that father himself, Tom, with whom Kyra has a history. The play is largely a two-hander; we never see all three characters together, and the lion’s share of the time is spent with Kyra and Tom. The two of them have had an affair in the past, but Kyra eventually left Tom to care for his dying wife, Alice. This, coupled with class tensions – Kyra is a penniless schoolteacher while Tom is a millionaire – generate the play’s action, which consists of Tom and Kyra talking, reminiscing, and arguing. This is helped by subtle, but ingenious touches to the production. The first hour’s conversation occurs while Kyra prepares dinner, and the decision to cook an actual spaghetti bolognaise during the performance is a masterful bit of verisimilitude.

The actors, naturally, are superb. Natalie Lauren is wearily sarcastic as Kyra, reacting sardonically to the two angst-ridden men, but holding her own in the more emotionally charged scenes. Her portrayal of anger is stunningly lifelike, and her gentleness with the shy and naive Edward lends credence to her character’s job as a teacher. Adam Diaper is brash and confident as Tom, but his swagger belies a real vulnerability. His constant banter and self-absorbed jokes make him intensely likeable, even as we recognise his character is a bit of an arse.

As a couple, the pair are impeccable; we understand intuitively why each of them has made the decisions they’ve made and why the other is hurt by it, and are able to sympathise with both. Luke Wintour is given a much less showy part as Edward, but he sells the character’s restless awkwardness. After two hours of sadness and conflict, the play ends on a note of unabashed sweetness, and it’s created by Wintour’s understated performance.

Skylight is a really special production. The gripes are there to be made – at two and half hours this may be a little long for some tastes, and the period details are messy – but I find myself somehow unwilling to make them. Skylight is proper, satisfying drama, and one of the finest productions I have seen in three years of student reviewing.

Review: Merlot and Royal

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 30 May 2017.

Merlot and Royal is a new musical being staged at Tingewick Hall this week. While it demonstrates genuine effort and no small degree of skill, it gives me no pleasure to say that the piece unfortunately falls completely flat. A period musical with no laughs, no tears, and no memorable tunes, it’s surprising that so many talented actors and musicians have managed such a mediocre display.

The plot feels both contrived and poorly-paced. Our hero is Robert Merlot, heir to the titular Merlot and Royal Banking Firm. After the death of his father he finds himself thrust into a world of high-powered meetings and luxurious parties, while also falling for a waitress ‘below his station’. You can probably guess the rest, but that summary does not do justice to the tangled mess that is the play’s structure. A mountain of undeveloped sub-plots, the play lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, lacking drive and panache. There are hardly any jokes, and the few there are struggle to raise a smile.

The production focuses entirely on the music, at the expense of character, plot, and charm. While the music is beautifully played by the impressive ensemble, opening night saw near-debilitating audio problems. The band were frequently too loud to hear the songs’ lyrics, and microphones seemed to stutter and cut out with every alternate word. Though competent, the music is ultimately forgettable, with not a single catchy melody. The blocking and choreography are also too static and unimaginative to make any of it memorable.

The actors are poorly served by a wooden script, but most of them manage acceptable performances. Sammy Breen has plenty of leading man charm, and Amelia Gabriel almost manages to wring some pathos out of her frequent passionate confrontations. The real standout is Alex Buchanan as a slimy bank clerk turned traitor turned bank robber (why?) who plays a scene of sudden contrition and suicide with such conviction as to almost distract from its sheer contrivance.

The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, and the singing is good across the board, but the fact remains that there is no spark of life in this production. The setting is unusual, but feels bland and generic; the ambition is admirable, but the execution is timid and dull. The sad fact is that these actors, these musicians, and these concepts, all deserve a much better play.