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FringeReview UK 2022

The Poison Belt

The Company, Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Sci-fi, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Becca Chadder, Costumes Designed by Jiida Akil, Lighting Design Simeon Miller, Sound Designer Khalil Madovi, Movement Direction Monica Nicolaides. Stage Manager Martin John Bristow, Props Master Venus Raven, Producer Jo Walker.

Carne Deputy Director & Footprints Festival Director Ebenezer Bamgboye, Festival Environment Designer Caitlin Mawhinney, Festival Lighting Design Catja Hamilton.

Till July 30th


So what could a Sussex-based sci-fi tale of 1913 by Conan Doyle – a space-borne poison belt of gas that hits the earth – possibly have to do with the week of the greatest temperatures known in the UK? The post-Edwardiana that people dig up.

Director Becca Chadder and the company that adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt couldn’t have predicted the hottest week ever, but the underlying threat makes the mix of comedy and sudden lurches elsewhere biting as acid. As an act of homage-cum-subversion it’s profound and witty by turns. As reclamation of imperial stories, invoking the prescience of 1913-style planet catastrophe, it’s a company triumph in cavalry twill.

The cast of three play many roles but essentially Sara Lessore’s Professor Challenger (and wife, often as a finger-puppet), Amma-Afi Osei’s Professor Summertree (making her stage debut, but already known here as writer of Redbrick); and Yuki Sutton takes Lord John Roxton and Challenger’s long-suffering chauffeur and odd-jobber Austin, whom Challenger bites. There’s a clue. They sashay a tightrope of British entitlement in waistcoats (Jiida Akil’s designed smart trousers to go with Challenger’s mustard, Summertree’s grey, Roxton’s Brunswick Green).

Challenger summons two tried and ever-tested friends, unnerved at chauffeur Austin’s tales – Sutton switching from aristo Roxton to surly Austin – to announce this poison belt. Challenger’s flooded by telegrams from over the world, scattering them in irritation. Their newspaper colleague McCardle chokes over the phone. All tell of people annihilated, especially those of ‘southern races’. You can see where this is going. There’s merely hours before the extinction of life, not just as we know it. The world falls first mad, then painlessly chokes to death. Work that out.

The company don’t stint on telling details, trains hurtle, cities like New Orleans, Paris, and Brighton burn to the ground (now I know why my train took over two hours), nor on the detached upper lips that calmly await the extinction of all life. Holed up with oxygen cylinders the four (Mrs Challenger yes, but Austin’s lower species, sorry Austin, poor chap slumped over his tyres) calmly await the end. There’s forethought as Mrs Challenger has provided a delicious meal, and there’s an amoeba come for a ride.

To say what wake-up call this might prove would be telling. The company are both subtle with performative gender and keener with knowing smiles every time race get mentioned. They manage to honour what’s good in the script and flay the bad gently, peeling off a little skin with a smile, just so you know.

Lessore’s Challenger is almost always in that one character: dismissive, abrupt, inspired, chilly, and on occasion melting; those times when a finger-puppeting Mrs shifts her voice-register to some hilarity (yes that’s the word). When Conan Doyle creaks, he really does in a dim recall of the more sexist or racist reaches of Sherlock Holmes, but more sweeping, less subtle. Eugenics hovers. To Lessore falls most of the crapulous imperial lumber of assumption, as well as Imperial measure logic. Witty even in her look, poised, Lessore juggles absurdity with seriousness, crass racism with touching humour.

Osei’s avuncular Summertree plays sceptic with a deep-voiced sense of being bested by Challenger every damned time. Her persona’s querulous, a walking and crotchety Falsification Theory, always locking microscopes and lamenting they won’t ever conclude the classification of chalk troglodytes. It would be chalk of course.

Sutton’s Roxton and Austin are more stock characters from Doyle’s Sherlock tales. Cleverly, Roxton’s chronicling – Roxton’s the penny-dreadful-writer version of the two scientists’ reflections on catastrophe – is shared by all; though much falls on Sutton’s bluff litheness, a singular quality Sutton brings to ripeness. Roxton’s chiselled out of cheap marble but appealingly resourceful.

There’s some hypnotic work with Monica Nicolaides’ movement, as on occasion the three swivel with spectacles extended in a trance dance. Simeon Miller’s lighting on narrow verticals of red and other shades underscores mood and often, with smoky effect, some moveable boxes, food props, telephone (it rings, Challenger often chucks it) and a strew of clothes, the storytelling allows these still moments. There’s a point when the gas creeps up, and the three, particularly Sutton, falter into a death saraband with Khalil Madovi’s sound with a backbeat.

Before the dawn, there’s a haunted scene, passing the innumerable dead in London, as Sutton strews clothing, top hats and flat caps from those boxes as bodies heap up. It’s a sobering image, both in Conan Doyle and resonating over 110 years as clothes, bodies thicken. Again Madovi’s use of church bells as the three led by Roston pull on bells to summon any left alive is riveting.

Reclaiming a text to both honour its urgency, and performatively to sport its absurdities, is inspiring. Instead of ignoring, the company deconstruct; instead of debunking, they lay claim and make over. I’m reminded distantly of how Yellow Earth stripped down Marlowe’s two-part Tamburlaine into three compelling hours with six actors at the Arcola in 2017. This storytelling recalls it in miniature: lithe, balletic even on the diminutive JST stage, with a flicked-wrist of epic about it.

Throughout this 2022 festival it’s been inspiring to see the Jermyn Street Theatre buzz with youth and diversity as well as regular patrons. This season’s more concentrated than last year, but this internationalist focus particularly with Woven Voices marks a further advance. As they claim, you saw it here first.