Edinburgh Fringe 2009
New writers tend to get lumbered with one of two criticisms- writing too much about themselves, or writing too far beyond their own experience. As The Unthinkable is set 150 years in the future and is a dystopian vision in which disability is the path to superiority, nobody could accuse writer Stacey Lamb of the former charge. The extravagance of the conceit is, though, the great source of interest here, if also somewhat a limitation.
In an Orwellian future, Florence Thatcher is having a child. Her child is to be the property of the New World Government, as all babies now are, and will be taken from her and given to The Elite- here a synonym for the disabled. It’s a world in which “the impaired get to pick and choose” says Poppy, the Baby Trader representative of the NWG. Florence takes to the streets with a placard saying “Stop Stealing Babies” but the tide of history is against her and ultimately she will have the choice of giving up her baby to the state or mutilating it in order to keep it.
It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad, the play could justly be called. But the premise is more interesting than one might expect and indeed the Big Brother-ish voice that keeps intruding on proceedings to caution Florence for using exclamations like “Jesus!” or “cow” makes a good point well. Although the question posed in the programme “How far are we now from inhabiting such a world?” provokes a resounding “Nowhere near, actually”, Lamb’s play constantly engages. There are one or two nice touches of dialogue to be found, such as Poppy’s “I would never vocalize such a judgement” which, in a world where people even now talk about “actioning” things doesn’t seem far off the linguistic mark either.
Elsewhere, though, the play limits itself by not finding a verbal or presentational language to rise to this dystopian imagining. “Think about it”, Florence tells her fellow marchers in a contemporary turn of phrase which surely will have long since died out in 2150.
Matt Lee Newby’s eerie and imaginative sound design out-classes the rest of the production, exactly capturing the world of Lamb’s imagination. Ross Edwards’ design, initially impressive in such a small space, is undermined by its idea of juxtaposing Florence’s colour with the Government’s monochrome. This might work in a larger space but here undermines the unity of tone essential to creating the world. The complete absence of a single lighting state aside from a general cover for a play which takes place in maybe half a dozen different settings and so which has, by necessity, a certain stylization built into it, is a bad misjudgement which undermines the piece’s professional aspirations. Peter Darney’s production would probably work much better as a radio piece.
Alice Bernard’s icy Poppy, speaking throughout with a clipped, anally-retentive authority, brilliantly captures the tone of abstract power required. Indeed her reading of a letter Florence wrote when she was 8 is rather touching for its rare touch of humanity. As Florence, writer Lamb’s more natural style provides an interesting contrast but does not, to my mind, give us enough to care about in a play in which us feeling for Florence’s struggle against the regime should be a crucial ingredient.
One has to give respect to this new company for staging such an uncommercial piece at an uncommercial time in this relatively obscure venue. Clearly not an attempt to showcase careers nor to launch the play into a commercial arena, The Unthinkable has clearly been created out of passion and commitment to its unusual conceit- exactly what Edinburgh is for. That these actors and, perhaps, writer will return to Edinburgh with more compelling or worthwhile material is, I would imagine, not unthinkable at all but very likely.