FringeReview UK 2023
The most compelling tech story I’ve seen on stage
Directed by Katie-Ann McDonough (She/Her), Set & Costume Designer Hazel Low (They/Them)) Lighting Design Rachel Sampley (She/Her), Composer & Sound Designer Annie May Fletcher (She/Her), Casting Director Becky Paris (She/Her),
Producer Chris Foxon, Costumer Supervisor Natalia Alvarez, Production Manager Misha Mah (They/Them, Stage Manager Elle Roberts (She/Her),
Till March 25th
Tyler’s an entrepreneur waiting for a non-existent cab in December 2008; he watches snowflakes fall. So does Jarrod, the man he most respects. Why not, they say… just tap a button?
Joseph Charlton’s 2018 Brilliant Jerks revived at the Southwark Playhouse directed by Katie-Ann McDonough, is all apps and bromance – several of them – till it isn’t. As for sisters, what’s that called, soromance?
Ten years on Mia’s piecing her life as an app-fed Glasgow taxi driver. And high-achieving coder Sean’s been head-hunted by Craig for just idly filling in an email quiz sent from nowhere. Is there room for Amy, ADHD and even more brilliant?
Charlton’s narrative swirl, deeply informed, never dull, snapping synapses as connections fuse, is a dizzying cautionary tale. Kiran Sonia Sawar’s Mia lives in a separate universe from the others, giving up a baby for adoption at 17 and dropping out, she’s only just got out of addiction and isn’t into unionising cabbies. What’s the point? The contrasting tempo here is wholly other, grounding, plangent, seemingly coasting to some crisis. Here, Rachel Sampley’s lighting shadows Hazel Low’s black-app-cum-cab-cum seating, a compressed question-mark of a set: gleaming as office, tenebrous as a Glasgow cab. Annie May Fletcher’s sound evokes gulphs of Glaswegian silence as well as dizzying Dubai.
Sawar’s also uber-sharp Amy, with the brightest ideas (building codes like an inter-generationally-completed cathedral) and chanteuse Clara, who knows who Tyler is, and winds him closer, till he negligently trusts his bromance antennae.
As Tyler blue-suited Shubham Saraf is every inch the prancing CEO, blowing in and out of Davos, full of verbal luxury. As Craig, Sean’s and Amy’s boss, he’s confusingly similar and it’s easy to conflate Sean’s narrative with Craig, and Tyler’s.
The two narratives indeed follow similar patterns. However beautifully laid-out the tech is, and it’s seductive, it never gets in the way of Charlton’s real target: the culture, the fallout. Tyler recruits ‘brilliant jerks’ like Zach and ends in a Korean club/brothel, doesn’t reverse quickly enough for a horrified Clara and endures personal, then reputational damage. Tyler’s heedless to the sexist culture of his new recruits because he identifies that’s what winners smell like: he buys into testosterone like shares in tween spirit.
Sean Delaney’s Sean – he’s also shrewd west-coast Jarrod, heedless ditto Zach – is someone who’s made it out, and shadows his preppy success with a winning nonchalance and self-doubt Bromanced baby Craig into the brotherhood, leaving Amy out in the cold isn’t a good idea if you’re confiding, and have this thing with Craig, and Amy really likes you. And is excluded from the leather-jacket gift because… she’s a girl, so that’s equal, right?
It’s even worse if Sean too meet bros who pull the whole team into a club (again, this being tech-hedonism) where the ‘girl from the Miami office’ is ‘offering lines in front of the security guards’. Reputational damage again – and there’s Sean’s big secret that might personally affect Craig. That’s why whoever started this, Sean might just take a fall.
Delaney with a change of top shrugs into Sean beautifully, as jerk Zach a snarl of hustle and as Jarrod, a glinting warm appraiser and the only true friend Tyler has, warning him to repair with Clara and reverse-engineer. Even Jarrod though has limits, and Delaney has the measure of subtext and understatement.
Saraf’s Tyler is a compelling study of heedless atavism mixed with visionary wonder: it’s the blindness of his vision that makes and can undo him, and Saraf compels as the man who right at the end enjoys another epiphany, as if reborn. But Charlton shows exactly what kind of rebirth or self-replication this might be.
Sawar’s Mia is not only inordinate and alone, her narratives are virtually uninterrupted, bar a few passengers played by cast members, and probes the desperate consequences of Uber, its slave-app and working-conditions. As well in Mia’s case, the world of casual sex from occasionally attractive customers, seductive lines left in the cab, and the continual pull of a son who one day might just jump in the back. Charlton could so easily design a car-crash, and there is one, but he refuses easy tragedy. There’s several reverses in this play. As Amy Sawar shines too as a hyper-active programmer, delicately snubbed but able to hustle when she needs to. As board-member Angela, Sawar’s all smiling plate-glass.
Though a little more differentiation between Craig’s and Tyler’s domains would be welcome, Charlton and the team here have packed into 85 minutes the most compelling tech story I’ve seen on stage. Sawar, Delaney, and Saraf morph in and out of high-kicking to the low blows of solitude seamlessly. Pure capitalist realism as the late Mark Fisher would say. And there is an alternative. A gem deserving of more revivals. See it.