Don’t. Make. Tea.

October 14, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆      Surprising

Traverse: Wed 5 – Sat 8 Oct, 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

Don’t. Make. Tea., at the Traverse for four nights only, finds Rob Drummond scripting a dark tale of the labyrinthine benefits system for Birds of Paradise Theatre Company.

The title refers to the instructions given to anyone with disabilities when visited at home for a benefits assessment: the act of hospitality becomes weaponised as an entrapment. In this near-future yarn, the Kafkaesque storm of double-speak surrounding benefits has become even worse.

Gillian Dean (Chris) and Aidan Scott (Ralph) in Don’t. Make. Tea. Pic: Andy Catlin

Chris, a single ex-detective in her forties has oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, OPCD, a rare degenerative condition which starts in the eyes muscles and moves into the rest of the body. She can see shapes, light and dark, is constantly in pain and walks with the aid of crutches.

Ralph is visiting to asses her for her continuing benefits. But in this new future, signalled by references to an octogenarian Elton John on the pre-show radio sound-track, he is not here to find out her needs, but her capabilities. Under the auspices of the new able society, his task is to find out if she is fit for work and find work for her to do.

Drummond has clearly done his homework and displays it all in a first half of subtly horrifying proportions, in which every nuance of disabled people’s needs are twisted against them. “You said you wanted to be treated equally, so we have not discriminated on who we send to assess you,” says Ralph when Chris suggests a female assessor might have been more appropriate.

mordant humour

It is a beautifully pitched, slow duet of a performance, directed with mordant humour by Robert Softley Gale. Gillian Dean’s knowing and obviously very bright Chris quickly descends into humiliating levels of pleading with Aidan Scott’s younger, always up-beat Ralph. You can see his humanity, but it is hidden under twisted morals and layers of bureaucratic excess.

It is not quite right to call it a duet, however, as there are two more passive performers ever present, represented on stage by artificial intelligence devices. Able and Francis are part of the at-home infrastructure which help make Chris’s life viable without having to have carers.

Aidan Scott (Ralph) and Gillian Dean (Chris) in Don’t. Make. Tea. Pic: Andy Catlin

Able, an AI update on Alexa or Siri, is voiced with impeccable timing by Neil John Gibson. Able provides a running live commentary on what is going on, right down to the give-away “Chris rises from the settee with 15% less energy than normal”.

Emery Hunter is the “Sign buddy” Francis on a big screen TV in the corner. Interpreting everything which goes on, including some nice moments when Ralph pushes her to translate a few more colourful words.

There is real attention to detail in every element of the production. Kenneth MacLeod’s set design is dominated by a unifying corporate AB logo, printed on nearly everything. It looks like a chilling combination of the Union Flag and the Brexit party logo. Louise Gregory’s lighting and Jamie MacDonald’s AV design add to the whole and draw all the elements together.

Such a unity is important, making light work of Birds of Paradise’s famed total integration of accessibility into their productions. The deconstruction of the benefits systems, meanwhile, is razor sharp and delivered with impeccable dollops of comedy.

Yet, for all the lightness of touch, the first half chunters along, never really catching fire until just before the interval.

a blaze of intent and energy

On its return, however, it is with a blaze of intent and energy far above anything of the first half. It is as if the production had had a good conversation with itself at half time, remembered that it was a Rob Drummond and Robert Softley Gale show and returned to the stage in a dramatically different formation.

It might not be a particularly unique plot twist but it is bundles of fun, made even better by having sat through the rather matter-of-fact first half. No doubt Ralph’s censorious wife Jude (Nicola Chegwin in a particularly well-calibrated performance), would say it was not big or clever. Who cares when it is this explosive and adventurous.

There is always a danger of preaching to the choir in plays about the failings of the benefits system. In Don’t. Make. Tea. Birds of Paradise has, once again, created a drama which sustains as theatre and is sharply adventurous while not just wearing its inclusivity lightly, but weaving it into the play itself.

A four night run is clearly just the start. As its future fiction draws closer to reality, this clever, entertaining piece of theatre is surely destined for a long and wide ranging future life.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes (including one interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 5 – Saturday 8 October 2022
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Birds of Paradise website: www.boptheatre.co.uk
Twitter: @boptheatre
Facebook: @birdsofparadisetheatre
Instagram: @boptheatre

Screenshot of on-stage TV with Sign Buddy Emery Hunter

ENDS

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