by Philip Kingslan John

Cul-De-Sac at The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter, explores real human emotion in the face of a crisis

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Philip Kingslan John

The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter’s most vibrant dramatic venue, opened a new play by Neil Bebber, entitled Cul-De-Sac.

The play is built on an intriguing premise: an asteroid plummets towards the earth, promising the end of civilization, and three sets of neighbours who have never actually spoken to each other before are finally forced to interact. This is all in a very English, very white middle class kind of a way, and in marked contrast to the overblown histrionics and heroics we have seen in countless Hollywood depictions of the apocalypse. At one point the character “Carla” openly laments the lack of blind panic (and more precisely, the lack of blind panic induced public love-making…!)

But while the stiff upper lip mentality, that well-harpooned staple of British comedy, does provide us with a few laughs, this is not really a comedy, and neither does the play shrink from honest depiction of human emotion. After an initial numbness and a shared “Dunkirk spirit” moment, the characters respond to the crisis in very different ways, and the audience is taken on a series of unique and compelling emotional journeys. Neil Bebber, winner of the 2009 Script Slam Writer of the Year award at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, asserts that Cul-De-Sac “was borne from my frustration with what I perceive to be our dying social skills”, but to me those moments of awkward English interaction between the separate couples are incidental and unimportant compared to the individual journeys of the characters, and the relationships within each of the couples.

The dramatic effectiveness of this is due entirely to the work of a fine ensemble cast. The oldest couple, played by Jane Bennett and Matt Lawrenson, is possibly on stage the least but channels extraordinary pathos and dignity. Young parents Katie Villa and Ben Crispin are intense and bristling with pent-up frustration, and the story of the youngest couple, Chloe Whipple and Ben Simpson, is arguably the most tragic of them all. The play has been directed by Charlie Coldfield, who is primarily an actor and has exploited his actor’s sensibilities to draw tender and subtly nuanced performances from the entire cast.

The staging was interesting: it’s the first time this reviewer has actually been to The Bike Shed Theatre so I am unsure whether this is standard practice for the venue, but the stage was positioned centrally with the audience split in two on either side. Chatting with the actors afterwards I was told that this was liberating, and I can definitely see how it enabled more naturalistic choreography and blocking. However, I would say that there seemed to always be a fair amount of unused space, and for a venue which clearly lends itself to a cramped, claustrophobic audience experience, another couple of rows of chairs could easily have been fitted in, bringing the audience even closer to the actors. I was also unsure about the number of songs which were used, giving the impression of a cinema soundtrack. So many things about the play and its production were so specifically anti-filmic that this stylistic flourish seemed odd and a little jarring to me.

Slight niggles aside, this is ultimately a production which succeeds on the strength of its writing (there are some truly outstanding moments, like the one I’ve stolen for my cartoon) and its acting, and is definitely worth your time and money. And the scariest thing of all is how plausible it all seems…

Cul-De-Sac is playing at Exeter’s The Bike Shed Theatre until Saturday, February 12, and entry costs a mere 10 of your British pounds (£7 concessions, £5 Monday)