“Nuclear Children” at Pleasance Courtyard

Jeremy Malies
***** Five-star review

Within seconds the sound effects (voices, radios, and alerts) tell us that the action, at least in part, will be on a submarine. There is an aquamarine feel to the lighting, and we hear the vessel fall to the ocean bed. So will this be Bryon Lavery’s Kursk all over again? Well, I liked Kursk and admire Lavery, so I’d be up for a variation on a theme. But this proves an altogether different and often hallucinogenic voyage as the sole character, Isla, talks to their dad who has died in a submarine accident. No plot spoiler there; it’s dealt with early on.

Ezra England’s one-person play (they also perform) is produced by Platform Presents. Like the very best in this genre (I’m thinking of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads), England creates a whole world for us even though the piece is a monologue with England (showing great mimicry powers) often embodying other characters in the drama.

Isla is an English student at London University who dates somebody she meets there (clever reveal later) while being tutored by a magnetic if terrifying female lecturer who will despise you if, even in your freshman year, you don’t know Jane Eyre backwards. As befits a plot with a literary aspect, England’s use of figurative language is evocative, disciplined and precise.

Director Seán Linnen has worked closely with England to ensure they acquire detail subtly during their character’s psychological unravelling and then disintegration even though there is much hope at the end. I puzzled over whether the central figure is on drugs (there is a reference to ketamine) but decided that grief over the death of a charismatic father is turning their wits. A textual note states that Isla’s world should feel manic and that the visions and thoughts should be explored visually. Even if it’s simple stagecraft for the submarine backdrop and Isla’s brain fog, the Pleasance’s technical resources empower Linnen to give a gonzo quality to the journey. And (quite rightly) we never lose the tin can atmospherics of the stricken sub.

There is penetrating analysis of the upper classes and commentary on self-reproach over sexual orientation even in contemporary central London. A dead father looking out for his daughter is refreshing. Portia’s father does it in The Merchant of Venice, but it seems that sons get most of the paternal attention from beyond the veil.

The moral of the story? Isla tells us that we should eat more melon. That’s as good a piece of advice as I’ve received in 30 years of Edinburgh Festival Fringe-going I suppose. There is a plot-based if not thematic link here, but the point probably sees England echoing Voltaire. When he told us to cultivate our gardens, Voltaire didn’t want us to grow more peas but to develop our own aesthetic in our own universe and then share it with those we love even if this is our dead submariner father, judgemental mother and crazed (if eminently logical) foul-mouthed grandmother. There is also a plea for common decency and solidarity: the springboard of the plot sees a woman die in a supermarket with shoppers around her seemingly indifferent.

This is a tender empathetic play. There are moments of keening intensity even when England is using the simplest of language. I swallowed hard after one of Isla’s asides to the father. “I hope it’s nice where you are.” This is soon followed by a laugh-out-loud gag. “I know you’re dead and that must be a full-time commitment but …” And Isla’s adjective “poisonous” to describe the sliver of hope during the first few days of the submarine going missing is equally piteous. The scope is broad here – we touch on chaos theory and parallel universes.

Isla opted for literature over philosophy in order not to send an already busy intellect into overdrive. It’s often difficult to distinguish between character and author here. I’m glad that England (who also does stand-up) has chosen to bring their fertile mind to writing drama. I haven’t been so moved in such an honest non-manipulative way for a considerable time. The treatment of cognitive decline in a parent and grandparent put me in mind of Florain Zeller and yet here it is only one of many themes handled with wit and grace. The literature professor mentioned above says that the written word is a dance – a boogie if you will. England’s writing has the syncopated characteristic of boogie in that the accent often falls on the ear where you would not expect it.

I count myself lucky that this wonderful play came up on my radar or, more correctly given the submarine content, sonar. It richly deserves a transfer to other festivals such as Brighton and Latitude.