7 September 2022
EUREKA DAY (The Old Vic Theatre) Review
Cards on the table: I’d never heard of Jonathan Spector or any plays he’d written. Yet I definitely wanted to see this production because the premise sounded like it would be a riot: a liberal [pre-]school where all points of view are welcome until a mumps epidemic breaks out, at which point everyone’s opinions no longer carry equal wait, and hilarity ensues.
Although there are large parts of the script that are exceptionally clever and funny (more on that later), the ending is also predictably disappointing because there is simply no resolution, satisfying or not, to a clash of two opinions. Worse, the play sets itself up for it: because, ultimately, the vaccination guidance is mandated by the government (broadly speaking), you know exactly how this is going to end. Written (and first staged) long before Covid, all it shows is that we’re as divided in personal opinions now as we were then, no matter the science (more mature with mumps, less so with Covid).
The first half is downright brilliant. The dialog innocently showcases all the participants whilst mocking each of them a little for their respective stereotypical behaviour. The writing in the scene where the school board holds a meeting with the parents about the new guidance is a masterclass in comedy. The second half goes somewhat downhill. It’s somber and clashy and somehow unsatisfying. I wonder if Spector will be making any tweaks to it as the run continues.
As for the cast, Mark McKinney steals the show hands down. Whilst I’ve always had a soft spot for him (“The Kids in the Hall”, need I say more?), he is on fire here. His Don (head of the board) is adorably sympathetic yet completely hapless. When he is reminded by a colleague that he doesn’t have children, and so his opinion matters less, McKinney crumples in front of our eyes. His optimism, however misguided, is infectious, and I think that, for all the banality and drudgery of the second half, it’s McKinney who makes it watchable and engaging.
Helen Hunt and Susan Kelechi Watson provide the main conflict of the story. Hunt’s Suzanne has started the school many years ago (and have had her children in it since). She is the sandal-wearing “live and let live” parody of a Californian. Most of what she says comes off largely as disingenuous token pleasantries, but it’s not clear how much of it is in the script vs. Hunt’s take on the character. Watson’s Carina is a mum of a new student (who’d been invited to join the board for a year as is the school’s tradition) who doesn’t seem to be interested in the school’s traditions or artisanal doughnuts or making friends, so much so that it makes you wonder why she accepted the board seat to begin with. You know from 5 minutes into the show on which side of the vaccination debate each of them is going to come down. And yet, in a wonderfully surprising twist of events (don’t worry, no spoilers), especially given the “blah” factor of the second act, it is Susanne that feels more likeable as a person, and I think this is down to Hunt’s performance. It is as if Hunt turns all the insincerity of when things were going well into a genuine attempt to understand the opposing point of view.
Kirsten Foster and Ben Schnetzer provide able supporting cast. The way Foster keeps pulling on her knitting yarn in the second half makes no sense to someone who knits. It’s meant to represent how angry her character is, but it comes off eye-rollingly daft instead. The one thing that annoyed me was the 2-minute on-stage presence of Winter, mum of the next year’s new student (as a full year passes between the start and end of the play). Surely there were other ways in which how things stand a year later could’ve been shown to us. What a nuisance!
Katy Rudd’s direction seems to have brought out the best of everyone in the cast. I’d seen quite a few of her productions, and she’s ben a bit hit-and-miss for me. Rob Howell did the set and costume design here, and both are incredibly spot-on. The set is fantastic (especially the ceiling), and the costumes subtly highlight every stereotype we are supposed to see in these characters.
My biggest gripe with this production, however, is the staging of that parent meeting where the board members discuss the new vaccination guidance. Without giving away the finder details, let’s just say that there are two parallel tracks playing out (the parents and the board members), a bit like what you have in “Noises Off”. The parent dialogue and the board dialogue are each funny in their own way. Unfortunately, the former is funnier, the both are non-stop, so the audience laughter at the former completely overpowers the latter, so it is impossible to hear the board dialogue. The scene goes on for a significant amount of time, and close to the front of the stalls though I was, I only caught maybe 5 lines between McKinney and Hunt. What a waste! I don’t know what can be done to improve this, but I hope the production team does something, otherwise half of the scene that takes up almost half of the act is entirely lost.
If you want to enjoy some quality acting and take the play for what it is rather than expecting a clever resolution to the drama, it’s a terrific outing.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5 (plus another £2 after they fix the parent meeting scene).