I’m of an age where the ‘four minute warning’ was a phrase that gave me nightmares as a young child. I swear it is partly responsible for my lifelong struggle with anxieties that still haunt me today. I’m sure I remember watching government broadcasts on what to do if the alarm sounded (or maybe I am just imagining them, created from the folklore that has developed around the phrase?). It seemed such an important thing throughout the 70s and early 80s, with the Cold War at its peak; a time when there was brilliant advice, such as taking shelter under the kitchen table in the event of a nuclear strike.
Which brings us to Quintuple L’s play of the same name. Arthur (Ryan DK Cogman) and Malcolm (Doug Muir) are alone in their separate locations, partway through their eight-hour shift, where their sole job is to watch their screens for incoming missiles, and so be the ones to issue that dreaded warning. Except it’s 2021, the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear strike is almost non-existent. Besides, we know full well now that hiding under that table would be pointless anyway.
Arthur can see the futility of it all, fully aware that no one is going to launch any missiles. So instead, he tries to amuse himself with inane chatter. Malcolm, though, is determined to remain fully focused on their role and not get side-tracked by Arthur, and he certainly isn’t going to take part in yet another game of I-Spy. In fact, as Arthur tellingly points out, Malcolm seems to almost want a nuclear strike, if only to prove their existence has some worth.
Four Minute Warning surely gives more than a passing nod to Waiting for Godot, simply replacing Godot with a nuclear missile; neither is ever going to appear. And as Waiting for Godot was famously described as “a play in which nothing happens, twice”, much the same could be said about Four Minute Warning, except that here nothing happens, day after day after monotonous day. There is an utter pointlessness to it all, and yet it flows by joyfully.
Of course, calling this wonderful play pointless is to ignore that underneath that veneer is an interesting debate on the disconnect people feel with the world around them, whether that be due to unemployment, a sense of worthlessness, or a host of other reasons. Because if you scratch the surface of the two-way conversation, that is what you will ultimately find.
This play is 18 minutes of absolutely nothing; there really is no start, no middle, and categorically no end. More importantly, it is 18 minutes of joyful absurdity, as the characters talk around in circles, and yet somehow manage to say so much about humanity in doing so.
Written by: Sam Went
Directed by: April Nash
Produced by: Becca Rowson for Quintuple L Production
Four Minute Warning is playing as part of Online@TheSpaceUK Season 2 and is available free until 31 January. This show, plus many others, can be found on the website below.