To the tune of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, the cast of The Nobodies sing ‘solidarity forever’ whilst handing us all paper goody bags. It’s certainly unconventional, and a mix of bizarre comedy with unsettling political messaging is perhaps the best way to describe Chalk Line Theatre’s fast-paced production.
Curtis (Joseph Reed), Aaron (David Angland) and Rhea (Lucy Simpson) are the friends who bump into their local MP at the train station. One of them goes over to talk to him about the hospital which is due to close, and the next minute he’s killed by a passing train. If you think it sounds sudden, then you’re not wrong.
Under Sam Edmunds and Vikesh Godhwani’s quick direction, a conflict is soon revealed and later developed – namely the ‘us versus them’ binary sentiment felt by working class, Northern England. The trio’s introductions are brief, but all three actors make use of the play’s simplicity. Angland plays Aaron with a tragic hope that his Mum will win her battle with cancer, Reed’s Curtis has a fiery, carefree demeanour as a young homeless man and as Rhea, Simpson portrays the young, committed medical student full of ambition for a career in healthcare.
When the group come into possession of the MP’s briefcase and thus the list of potential buyers of the hospital land, it’s easy to see why, in times of desperation, Aaron and Curtis agree to blackmail the individuals into dropping their bids. One would expect Rhea, however, entering a career all about morals, to put up a little more resistance to the pair’s criminal idea. Yet all it takes is peer pressure and the promise of money for her course for her to be complicit, in a scene which undermines the slick character development before and makes her growing unease far less impactful. As she watches her friends’ descent into vigilantism, Rhea witnessing it all as a completely innocent bystander would have made for a far more interesting dynamic.
It’s not the first time that we see an abrupt change of character, either. When all three are caught up in a traumatic incident towards the end of the play, Angland’s next scene presents him as totally unphased by the encounter. It may well be down to the passage of time, but much like Rhea’s shift in morals, it undermines a curious subplot planted in the middle of the play.
It therefore means that for most of The Nobodies, the play is hard to take seriously, though that works when it comes to the comedy. Hyperbolic and nonsensical, the trio act out each of the five potential and affluent buyers with ridiculous grandeur and eccentricity (albeit with the same pop music instrumental each time). It’s a humorous, mocking nod to the wider ‘us vs. them’ binary at the play’s heart. It reaches its climax in a brilliant scene about first-class train tickets, with Simpson rolling around on the floor in despair, only taking a short breath in between one loud, cliché and sustained ‘no!’.
There are, of course, some quieter moments – not least when the death of the MP is portrayed. With no more than three blocks of wood and yellow gaffer tape, set designer Becca White creates a station platform, the presence of a train hinted by Alan Walden’s clever light design. With impressive simplicity, White makes good use of the Vaults’ Crypt space to create atmosphere, the single piece of corrugated metal at the back of the room providing a subtle rural touch. From the set, to fourth wall breaks, to eye contact, the environment does, at times, feel incredibly intimate – and possibly a little bit unnerving.
If it wasn’t so jarring, The Nobodies‘ switch from clowning to criminality could have been unsettling too. The level of blackmail becomes hauntingly jet black in nature by the end of the hour-long play, in a stark contrast to the humorous and likeable individuals presented to us at the start. They started by raising the conflict of elite vs bourgeoisie, and as the play goes on, they become the exact thing they initially hated, monstrous with their newfound power. The Nobodies is, therefore, an intense tale of character development, of three individuals toying with their own politics and morality. It’s just unfortunate that as they all clumsily change as beings searching for hope and something to believe in, I sometimes don’t believe them.
The Nobodies played at VAULT Festival in London in February.
Production Images: Lidia Crisafulli.
Disclaimer: I saw The Nobodies for free in exchange for a review as someone who was a part of VAULT Festival’s Emerging Critics scheme this year. I did not receive any payment for my involvement in the scheme or for this review, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.