Brighton Fringe 2023
Chemistry is a consummate production. Yet again Sam Chittenden reminds us how theatre can punch holes into the future, partly to ensure they never happen.
Directed by Penny Gkritzapi, Original Music by Sofia Panagiotoploulou and Panos Sotiropoulous, Set Design by Penny Gkritzapi, Lighting and Sound Design Alex Garfath
Till May 27th
A young man and woman meet, separated by glass. It’s immediately clear why they’re there, but nothing else bears any relation to what we’ve experienced, even imagined. Sam Chittenden’s 2020 two-hander Chemistry directed by Penny Gkritzapi, opens at the Lantern Theatre, till May 27th.
Separated by an imaginary glass but real neon strip with mirror-like table and chairs, Harriet Main’s Bea has been there before. She almost smiles at slightly younger ardent Jay (Rowland Stirling) who’s never done this. A clock counting down gives them 50 minutes, they’re a genetic match and have to explore each other, including attraction, chemistry. Then consent. The problem is they can never meet, never touch. Even gestation’s elsewhere, presided over by Fosterer robots.
A prescient work exploring the limits of human need versus human survival, Chittenden’s play starkly posits the fact that the very humanity we need – intimacy, relationships, touch most of all – is what will kill us, if pandemics without vaccines become the norm. Each is sequestered in their bubble.
Given that, what drives this play is character. Bea’s wary rejection of Jay’s need to touch, especially the mother of his child, the woman he’s attracted to. Bea, seemingly sassier, more resigned to rules, has both a wary history to defend herself with but also a longer memory, both pro and contra. It’s this in particular that enriches the play.
Whilst Stirling’s Jay is ardent, warm, unbroken by experience, he’s also more curious: he’s looked up illegal rom-coms but even more so, 20th century papers on monkeys and intimacy. Jay’s done even further background reading round their meeting. Stirling’s funny, quizzical, slightly blokey, but sensitive and respectful. In other times you’d describe Jay as normal. Though to us that seems miraculous, given his world.
Main’s Bea though is one of the last of those who can remember a mother, and only later on does she particularise her, as if Stirling’s Jay persuades her to recall, almost like a therapist. It’s this very memory of intimacy, touch – which Stirling’s character’s never had – that makes her wary, and her unravelling interesting.
Main is consummate at uncoiling and snapping shut again. You believe in Bea’s terribly proscribed world. Her mix of exasperation, pragmatism and very real, aching desire – just to connect – burns off the importuning that Stirling’s able to bring to his role. And there’s a brother who troubles Bea. The denouement’s explosive.
Apart from other Chittenden work, Chemistry is kin to Stef Smith, especially her future AI-infused works like Girl in the Machine (2017), and particularly Ella Road’s 2019 debut play, The Phlebotomist, where genetic profiling rules a dystopic world. In a sense though Chemistry’s even more starkly original.
If the premise seems improbable in some details (how can a society physically construct those bubbles all live in?) it’s by no means impossible. It’s the sheer originality of Chittenden’s scenario that detains us. Reviewing The Comedy of Errors at the Globe this past weekend, I was struck by how it’s easy to get past the absurdity that both sets of 33-year separated, identical twins would be wearing exactly the same attire, rendering them impossible to differentiate. You ignore the artificiality for the mad geometry of truth. It’s a virtuosic game of timing and performative expectation. Same here.
Original music by Sofia Panagiotoploulou and Panos Sotiropoulous, burns lightly into a strange world. Set design by Penny Gkritzapi is simple and striking, clothes subdued to near-invisibility, lighting and sound design by Alex Garfath, with its computer warnings and red lights, clean and satisfying.
Chemistry is a consummate production in a space whose curtained T challenges less here than normal. Yet again Chittenden reminds us how theatre can punch holes into the future, partly to ensure they never happen.