After The End

Tue 22nd – Sat 26th May 2012

reviews

Alexander Stone

at 10:00 on 23rd May 2012

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It’s the end of the world out there, as Mark (Johnny Gibbon) seems to enjoy describing just a little too much. At the start of After The End, the audience joins Mark and Louise (Suzie Preece) in the bomb shelter at the bottom of Mark’s garden. Above, there are charred bodies, clouds on fire, and nuclear fallout. Within these four grey concrete walls is everything you need to survive; food, warmth, and Dungeons and Dragons. Except Louise hates Dungeons and Dragons, and she doesn’t much like Mark. After The End is a complex, emotional play that stretches its cast of just two out to their fullest, and beyond.

As the production progresses inconsequential disagreements slowly escalate, ripping apart any relationship Mark and Louise might have had before the end. The dysfunctionality is captured masterfully – there’s an awful lot of “sorry” and even more swearing – and between the tiffs, initially at least, there are tender moments of mutual support. The story After The End weaves can mean a lot of things, and you’ll have to go and watch it to see what it means for you. As a politics student I saw Mark, when he starts withholding Louise’s food about halfway through the play, as embodying a ham-fisted justification of our counter-terrorism efforts post 9/11. He can think of no other way to protect “the good society” than by becoming what he professes to despise. Food is withheld as a humane tactic of coercion because Louise refuses to play Dungeons and Dragons. “We have to keep busy” Mark stresses, but as we found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can’t force someone to be free. About three-quarters of the way through the play, when Louise discovers a knife, the audience suddenly realise what it had all slowly been building up to, like a microcosm of the Cuban Missile crisis, and now the finger is resting, shaking slightly, on the Big Red Button.

The Alma Tavern, which is one of my favourite theatre spaces in Bristol, was a perfect choice to stage this play. In the cramped auditorium of fifty seats, facing a 5x5m stage, the audience feel truly trapped inside the bunker with Mark and Louise, gawping silently in the corner while their relationship unravels. Simple lighting produces big shadows that dance around the walls and clash like spiritual titans behind the mere mortals fighting on stage. I don’t know where the Bristol Old Vic team got the props, but kudos. Metal bunk beds, a portable gas stove and even a modern day chamber pot perfectly evoke an underground prison built into a world of impending nuclear war, where to survive was not a means but the end in itself.

The two actors gave absolutely stellar performances in After The End, and were only matched by the quality of the directing. Long, lingering scenes of sleeping and eating perfectly evoked the desolation and monotony of a life lived four feet underground, encased in concrete. You’ll have to watch it yourself to fully realise the power of one man stuffing a cereal bar into his mouth as you look on, angry and starving. After The End is a highlight of my theatrical year so far.

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Kirsty Morrissey

at 11:26 on 24th May 2012

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The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School's 'Directors' Cut' season draws to a close this week with a brilliant production of Dennis Kelly's 'After the End'. The play opens in Matt's protective bunker after a nuclear bomb attack has left the outside world destroyed, and presumably most of its inhabitants. Having once mocked his paranoia, Mark's work colleague Louise is now the bunker's grateful guest while they wait for the radioactive dust to settle, before they can confirm if any of their friends and family have survived the attack. At first the play resembles an elaborate playing out of the "if you had to be locked in a room with…" game. Louise clearly would never have chosen awkward Mark from reprographics, who has a tendency to sound "a little bit fascist", as her bunker buddy, but she holds her own as the rows over food and gas rations begin.

Their relationship soon becomes a microcosm for the social issues they are discussing. Mark argues that democratic countries have a responsibility to control developing countries because they know best. These beliefs are soon transferred into the bunker, as the control games begin and with each repetition that he is doing what is best for Louise the tone of their created world becomes more sinister. But the play soon proves itself to be something more than another social commentary. While it explores provoking issues, ultimately it is a psychological thriller which pushes its characters to the extreme and delves into the darkest recesses of human nature.

This is a challenge which both actors rise to magnificently, keeping the audience continually engaged in their individual declines, as well as that of their relationship. Suzie Preece's intelligent performance handles all her character's strands with equal subtlety and believability. She appears to both physically and mentally deteriorate on stage so that by the final bow it is nearly impossible recall the easygoing young woman of the opening scene who joked about different ways of calling someone a cunt. Johnny Gibbon handles his character's darkest moments superbly and at these points his performance is uncomfortably organic. His transitions between light and dark moments sometimes appear more clunky than Preece's, but Mark's shifts are more severe and there is arguably a reluctance in the audience to allow casual reticence or bad jokes to sit alongside Mark's malevolence.

These brilliant performances were perfectly supported by the Alma's Tavern's small black box theatre which easily created the feeling of an underground bunker. After a long first half the space becomes stuffy and overheated, but even this typical criticsm of the space seemed to work to the piece's advantage, and helped support Trevitt's building of intensity. However, while this building of tension was successful, it meant the much shorter second act felt slightly tacked on; it failed to maintain the high standard set by the rest of the play. Nonetheless this production is more than worth seeing for the first act alone. If Ellie Trevitt's direction is indicative of the standard of her graduating class then I am excited to see the great theatre that her generation will produce.

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