'The Brink' review or 'What state is your stasis in?'

'The Brink', Brad Birch
Orange Tree Theatre, 13th April 2016

In all impressive plays (and ‘The Brink’ is most certainly that) there will always be a moment which seems to have the whole play bound up in it. This moment will all-but glow with meaning and make the audience tingle. In Brad Birch’s ‘The Brink’, this moment comes near the end of his play when teacher Nick - driven doolally by visions of a bomb beneath his school – digs desperately for answers. He scrabbles and scratches away at the ground, his body tight with tension, only to find a great hole filled with paper. The hole glows brightly, but it glows with a light that is cold and taunting. It is a chilling moment which feels utterly contemporary and oddly familiar; a glimpse at the fraught search for identity and purpose that so many of us (particularly, perhaps, young men) seem to be undergoing today, which is underpinned – inevitably and horribly – by a buzzing sense of panic, depression, and powerlessness.

Now, all that might sound very gloomy indeed - but ‘The Brink’ is actually a very funny play, which refuses to take itself too seriously. About half way through, when poor Nick (played with a brilliant light touch by Ciarán Owens) is seriously starting to lose his shit, one of the characters pipes up: ‘What is this, Angela’s Ashes?!’ You see, that is the thing with depression and fear these days; it isn’t an exceptional thing, it doesn’t warrant special treatment and – no matter how overwhelming it might become – it is still, until the very moment it becomes unmanageable, an ordinary aspect of everyday life.  

It’s the very normality of Nick’s abnormal feelings that lends ‘The Brink’ such a strange power. Nick’s fears became his ‘new normal’ and it is only very late on – once it is far too late to row back - that Nick’s visions swerve wildly out of control. Director Mel Hillyard (who has worked with Birch previously) ratchets up the oddness at a controlled and subtle pace. At first, the production contains just the softest of strange glimmers (and a lot of easy chuckles). But slowly, slowly those odd flashes begin to build – lights flash red, characters slide into one another, night merges with day, jokes turn sour – and Nick’s nightmares become a reality.

Designer Hyemi Shin keeps the stage space fairly clear and clutter-free. The floor is filled with the wooden chips you find in a school playground, but is otherwise empty. The only props are four square stools, which glow white and – in later and more intense moments – a cool harsh red. The stage looks like a blank space, an empty playground, a gloomy dreamscape; the inner-workings of Nick’s tired and fearful mind. It is the ideal setting – open-ended yet with a childish twang - in which to explore the ‘stasis’ that is slowly consuming Nick. It is a space that suggests the yawning nothingness that is depression. It is also a space that hints at the way in which endless options and a refusal to grow up (exacerbated by an inability to buy houses, afford children etc) is trapping today’s young adults in a limitless childhood.

As Nick’s depression and paranoia take hold, he turns away from the adults around him (including girlfriend Chloe) and confides, instead, in a young student. A deep distrust of authority runs like molten lead through Birch’s play. Chloe’s bastard boss Martin and creepy headmaster Mr Boyd are played with chilling and cheerful indifference by Vince Leigh. He is the authority figure that today’s younger generation have begun to despise, or at least deeply distrust. He is the government that is planting a bomb – in broad daylight - under our children’s schools and futures.

Nick begins to see his enemy – headmaster Mr Boyd – in everyone around him. Vince Leigh plays all the preening figures in Nick’s life; he is there behind swaggering boss Martin, self-serving headmaster Mr Boyd, and all the ballsy students who seem far more certain of themselves than Nick will ever be. The doubling is used most frequently, and most meaningfully, with the male characters in Nick’s life; they taunt him with versions of manliness that he fears he will never match. This same fear – what does it mean to be a man today – runs through countless contemporary plays, written by men. It’s there in every Alistair McDowall plays (all his male characters are, in part, running away from themselves); it’s there in Nick Payne’s wrangling with ideas of fate and identity ('Constellations' and 'Incognito'), Duncan Macmillan’s search for the meaning of happiness ('Lungs' and 'Every Brilliant Thing') and the constant questions about male identity that run through Mike Bartlett’s writing.  

And so we return - again - to that closing image, in which Nick digs and digs – desperate to find something deep and real and dangerously alive – but is confronted, instead, with a gaping hole filled with paper. It’s an image that resounds with a horrible sort of hollowness; a space filled with bureaucracy and paperwork when what we really want is bombs, rushing blood and meaning. No bomb, then – and yet the clock keeps ticking.