Brad Sutherland’s Just Stop Extinction Rebellion – not to be dismissed on account of the “romcom” label – is a very versatile new piece of theatre. It’s equally enjoyable in a pared down production, as director Kenneth Michaels here stages at the White Bear Theatre and as a likely new play on one of London’s more intimate West End theatres.
All five characters have different motives for joining their local environmental activism group, but we feel their faith in the effectiveness of their tactics waver once their secretary spells out the diabolical trade-off between media attention (gained only through some form of disruption) and the increasing alienation of Joe Public from their cause. There’s an evolving closeness between the two main characters, brought together by climate change. Ben (James Price) is a 52-year old accountant and activist, recently separated from a frisky and rough-around-the-edges younger wife, tired of his English politeness, Earl Grey habits and weekend routines. Meanwhile, Millicent Forbes-Frobisher (Louise Bangay) is a distinctly upper class lady, some years older than Ben, also recently separated from a suave and charismatic barrister husband (Stephen Riddle), and with time on her hands to work her way through a varied bucket list, where saving the planet is third on her to-dos.
Sutherland’s text is beautifully nuanced and surprisingly rich in narrative layers. Millicent’s conversation-starters with Ben are comically intrusive and her riff on the specific supermarket range of eggs with which she pelts each of her targets is amusing. But much of the comedy heavy lifting is, unquestionably, left to the other three oddball characters, who crank up the laughter quotient of this comedy.
We cringe and smile in equal measure at the interpersonal dynamics of the five activists in the cell: when all, cross-legged, drop on the floor and synchronise their hums and ‘oms’ with those of Gaia (Orsolya Nagy), the spiritual leader of the group who has flowing, rainbow-dyed hair, the moment she starts trance-like gyrations to invoke the blessing of Mother Nature over the protesters’ shenanigans; when the secretary throws a hissy fit and uses sympathy for a recent loss to extort a majority and secure his motion in favour of yet another public infrastructure disruption; or at a pudgy, elderly Mrs Warboys (Hilary Field), who requires the help of two members when getting up from the yoga mat but insists that affectionately holding hands with a potential love interest “would be nowhere enough” for her.
Michaels’ direction strikes a good balance between the personal focus and the social backdrop, with apt use of real activists’ comments captured through interviews recorded at rallies. At no point do we feel that one dimension detracts from the other.
A lot more could be made of existing lines and a lot could still be trimmed from the text to deliver even funnier human material and sharper social commentary in future productions, but this is a comedy that certainly deserves to be enjoyed by many for longer.
Written by: Brad Sutherland
Directed by: Kenneth Michaels
Produced by: Maiden Productions
Design: Samantha Parry
Just Stop Extinction Rebellion plays at White Bear Theatre until 10 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.