Imagine the covid lockdowns of recent years, but this time with the added instruction that you cannot leave your home at all, not even for a walk – oh and you are now trapped with the random person you went home with last night.
Eve (Inyoung Lee) is South Korean, newly arrived in London. She meets Adam (Fred Arnot) when he helps carry her suitcase. They hit it off and Eve invites him back to her home for some ‘ramen’. The next day they’re woken by sirens and a notification of a pandemic, informing everyone that the air is so toxic they must stay indoors. Days and weeks play out as they live through the tedium of lockdown and the claustrophobia of not being able to go outside. Alongside the process of slowly getting to know each other.
Korean Janggu Drummer Jun Seok de Back accompanies the performance, his drumming used in combination with light changes and character resets to show changes of time and scene – unfortunately, things are not adequately synchronised, causing a disjointed look.
There is lots to love about the honesty in the script. If you suddenly find yourself trapped in an apartment with someone who was probably a one-night stand, how are you going to kill the tedium… sex. A lot of sex! This is amusingly acted out by Lee and Arnot, with a particular comedic highlight as Arnot breaks the fourth wall to indicate to de Back to proceed with the drumming.
But elsewhere there are inconsistencies that hinder and stretch plausibility just a little too far. The premise suggests they are literally trapped in Eve’s apartment, completely unable to leave, even for a walk or exercise. Yet a takeaway delivery is possible.
Midway through we see a sudden shift in themes. Eve talks about feeling judged by her accent, that even though she is like everyone else, with her love of Amy Winehouse and Radiohead, the real her is not seen. It’s powerful, made more so by the well written words being projected onto the wall. The problem is that this comes out of nowhere. There is nothing prior to suggest these issues, other than some light teasing as Adam has her teach him a few words in Korean. It’s possible that the intent is to show that Eve isn’t okay. It is the middle of the night and she has reached a point where she can admit it, even if only to herself. It leaves us wondering if she is keeping her feelings of insecurity hidden away from everyone; Adam, friends and family? Has the pandemic and the newly found relationship brought her to this point? This holds potential, it’s interesting, it’s something that could turn the play on its head. But it’s not what Surviving Strangers seemed to be going for.
The writing is sharp in places and even when the play does drags, the characters remain likeable, helped by two fine performances. But there are almost two separate plays happening here. One is a smart and funny comedy about being trapped in lockdown with a one-night stand, the other about feeling isolated and alienated as an immigrant, struggling to have people see you beyond your accent. Both offer a solid base for a play, but neither currently get the justice deserved. Surviving Strangers has potential, but until it decides which story it wants to tell it will fail to achieve it.
Written by: Inyoung Lee
Directed by: Helen Iskander/ Henry Charnock
Surviving Strangers plays at The Space until 20 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.