Penelope Skinner’s new play, Eigengrau, is set in a London with no sense of community. It’s a city we hope we don’t experience but we all know exists. A group of twenty year olds are all alone and searching for love and friendship. It could be depressing stuff but in this play it is very, very funny.
Feminist activist Cassie has a flat share that isn’t going well. She had to advertise on Gumtree and found Rose, a ditzy blonde who has never heard of sexual liberation. Rose’s ‘boyfriend’ Mark works in marketing and is instantly offensive to Cassie. His flatmate Tim has problems too – he is recently bereaved, overweight and works in a friend’s chicken store. (Writing for The London Magazine, I have to point out that what these people need is a reputable lettings agent.)
In the interaction between these characters Skinner deals with pretty much every taboo of polite conversation and gets great laughs out of them all. Never talk about religion? Rose is a believer and happy to proselytize. She has proof fairies exist, oh, and dwarves as well. Sex and death? The cynicism and romance of casual encounters and falling in love cross over hilariously. Meanwhile Tim mourning his grandmother becomes grotesquely hilarious as her ashes are used to great comic effect. There is politics as well: Mark is surprised to learn people still ‘do’ feminism, and of course there is talk of property, that very London obsession.
With this comic potential the show has plenty of laugh out loud moments but as you might predict with humour this dark, it sometimes crosses a line. Where this lies is personal and, partly, the point of such black comedy. A loose grip on reality is often endearing but as this becomes dangerous it is disturbing. The women in the play debasing and mutilating themselves are dealt with ironically, but also horrifically. A long scene of oral sex, where the lights are cleverly raised, makes watching fellow audience members frankly more entertaining than what is happening on stage.
Yet all the cast show great skill in treading the fine line between humour and bad taste. It is impossible to say who gets the most laughs – there are so many of them. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Mark is revolting – as smooth as they come and too clever for his own good. It takes real talent to turn an audience off a character that quickly! John Cummins’ Tim is utterly charming. He is a sensitive soul who is lost but still sees further than most. The women have slightly meatier roles, allowing Sinead Matthews and Alison O’Donnell to shine – their disappointments in love are moving as well as hilarious. The cast are clearly confident in the hands of director Polly Findlay. This is all heady, heavy stuff and the bold traverse design from Hannah Clark makes for an intimate, yet potentially intimidating space.
The journey our intrepid Londoners take is one worth making with them. Eigengrau is the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness, a kind of grey that the optic nerve generates. There is plenty of blindness in the play. As the characters grope around, it becomes clear they aren’t going to find happiness through money or causes but need to search within themselves. Politics or success won’t help them but maybe, through fantasy at least, they will be able to laugh along the way.
Until 10 April 2010
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Written 16 March 2010 for The London Magazine