by Luke Irwin

If there’s one moment to take from Winchester’s latest Depth Charge production, it’s the line, “Sorry for making you do anal.”  Spoken during the delightfully cringe-worthy kiss-and-make-up sequence of The Elephant in the Room, it typified the evening’s performances insomuch as it was as ambitiously shocking as it was devilishly funny.

After an inspired directorial choice of a surreal freeze-frame from all four plays, setting our course for the night, we kicked off with Megan Ball’s Flatpacked, a low-key kitchen sink drama detailing the sticky end to married life for Stacey (Emily Mahoney) and Joe (Scott Freeman).  This was by no means the most adventurous play of the night, a two-hander squeezed compactly into centre-stage, but it proved to be the most ruthless.  The claustrophobic arena was juxtaposed neatly with its tautly constructed characters, neither of whom are afforded an ounce of sympathy as we’re thrown into this painful set up.  For the majority of its runtime, Flatpacked seems like something we’ve all seen before – Joe and Stacey’s unhappy marriage is doomed as soon as he walks through the door from the night-shift as a bar manager – as Ball does away with the excesses of ‘flair’ placing in its stead the requisite argument through gritted teeth that can only lead in one direction.  We trudge all the way to the bloody end with brutal realism.

Flatpacked
Flatpacked

In many ways it was unfortunate that Flatpacked was followed by Shannon Harris’ Barefoot, as one invariably reminds you of the other.  They’re similar in style – a two-hander centred on a frosty couple (or exes in this case) coming in the ilk of many previous comedy/dramas DepthCharge has treated us to over the past three years.  In this variation, Karen and Derek, a separated couple have just arrived at an airport taxi rank on their way to visit relatives.

You always got the sense that Karen and Derek’s conversation was going nowhere, and to a certain extent that’s exactly what happened: nothing. I felt like I could’ve spent all day listening to this couple’s wonderfully biting and funny dialogue.  Hannah Gimson is given the enviable role as Karen, the shrill, politically incorrect matriarch and plays it to blustering perfection, while Josh Moody as Derek has little to do but soak up the laughs with the occasional quip or perfectly judged facial expression.

When it did come time for the characters to reach a conclusion of sorts, it was again performed with delightful eccentricity.  Karen, musing on her relative’s homosexuality merely shrugs to herself and says, “a lesbian, eh?”

Barefoot
Barefoot

Compare that to Antosh Wojcik’s The Elephant in the Room, a veritable smorgasbord of in-your-face clownery.  The characters don’t so much emote as they yell at each other with all the subtlety of a porno.  The story centres around Chris (Brendan Way) trying to come to terms with witnessing his two close friends Rachel (Clare Holman-Hobbs) and Alex (Daniel Luxton) doing an assortment of unsavoury bedroom acts.  What exactly they were doing we never learn – at least not until the now irrefutably disturbing, “Sorry for making you do anal” line, although one could argue that by that point it was pretty obvious.  Brendan Way’s Chris provides some wonderfully flustered physical comedy, and throw into the mix the eponymous Elephant (Charlie Handy), a bare-chested guy who struts around the room talking in tongues, and you’ve got the set-up for hilarious surrealism.

The Elephant’s presence is never truly explained – is he a friend of Chris?  A figment of his imagination?  This question would be problematic if it weren’t for Elephant’s desire to throw narrative out the window in favour of its enigmatic characters and strange set-pieces.  What actually comes of these characters isn’t really important, rather, Wojcik seems more concerned that we get a good dose of acid-tinged humour.

This is what makes the aforementioned “anal” line that more incongruous.  A play that had previously revelled so much in toying with its audience – asking them to answer for themselves why Chris is so hung up about a toothbrush, a banana and a telephone – now all of a sudden feels the need to wrap everything up neatly at the end.  Sure, there’s a comical awkwardness to the situation, but it just goes to show that it was willing to throw everything out of the pram in order to make a good joke.

The Elephant in the Room
The Elephant in the Room

The night crashed back down to earth with the harsh realism of Paige Marchment’s Checkout, an indictment of posttraumatic stress disorder, starring Marco Carraro as Mark, a returning war veteran.  It’s as he visits an electronics shop that he’s accosted by receptionist Sally (Steph Ablewhite) and Danny (Kieren McGarry), an enthusiastic reporter looking for a scoop of a war “hero”. Their persistence eventually leads to Mark caving, as the memories of war come flooding back to him.

When one thinks of traumatised war heroes, the mind tends to drift to these ludicrous moments of melodrama laden with political messages.  I was half-expecting Carrero’s Mark to suddenly start screaming, “Nothing is over!  Nothing!  You just don’t turn it off!” in his best Sly Stallone expression, but credit to both writer Marchment and actor Carrero for avoiding the cliché, as he manages to conjure up some truly heartfelt moments, in particular an outstanding anecdote concerning his discovery of a battered child’s toy.

What was confusing about Checkout is that it never quite settled on a line between comedy and drama, and the climactic monologue – as elegant as it was – always felt a little forced, not least because as soon as Mark begins his diatribe the lights went down and were replaced by an imposing spotlight, as if deliberately calling attention to the sutures of the piece.

Both Ablewhite and McGarry play their roles up for laughs – McGarry in particular chews up the scenery to much delight – but by the end I was left unsure as to what exactly the point was.  There was clearly a level of satire in there as the journalistic hack unwittingly gets his scoop, but placed almost in cahoots with the shop girl (who, as it happens, gleefully records Mark’s tirade on her phone) it seems to just be muddying its point.

Checkout
Checkout

Nonetheless, one has to admire how ambitious and detached Checkout was to the rest of the evening, and no doubt provided a change-of-pace for DepthCharge, a troupe which has become almost synonymous with comedy.  Indeed, ambition seemed to be the theme of the production – the production was flawless and as much as the spotlight seemed like a misstep, it certainly raised the bar in terms of aesthetic quality for the show.