In a brave undertaking be•wilder have taken their newly devised piece Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill to the London stage. What has resulted is an original play, written by Stephanie Degreas and Raphael Ruiz, that tackles absurdist themes with mixed results. A newly established company of international postgraduates from RADA, be•wilder have brought together a group of actors with various cultural backgrounds to create an unusual and at points impenetrable piece of theatre.
Set in the confines of “Old Joe’s”, this play is simultaneously rooted in and dismissive of place. The various characters have all arrived at the old restaurant/bar (it is never made explicitly clear) on route somewhere else. The location acts as a boundary of sorts between the different countries the characters are departing from, and is a passing through place in the train station from which the characters are all set to depart. This nebulous geography is a particularly interesting in pushing the play’s absurdist plot as, in a similar way to the settings of earlier playwrights of this genre such as Bertolt Brecht and Dario Fo, the unspecified location lends to a focus on the characters on stage and their gradually revealed histories. However, because the difficulty of ascertaining exactly where the action is set in Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill, much of the play remains hard for an audience to interpret. There is very little clarity surrounding the nature of “Old Joe’s”, or even who Old Joe actually is, and this leads to considerable confusion on the audience’s behalf and often acts so as to distract from the plot and the characters of the play. This is a little frustrating as it does feel that the concept behind Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill has been well thought through, and if it were executed with a little more clarity then it would be a more intriguing piece of theatre.
Be•wilder are attempting to portray a place that exists on the borderlines of newly created nations in an extremely regulated (and seemingly dystopian) world, whose countries’ names seem fresh out of the Hunger Games: West One, North West etc. The first character on the stage is an officious bureaucrat (Hadleigh Harrison) who, with the aid of his camera, attempts to document and profile individuals within the society and control immigration between the different countries. His characteristics of hyper intelligence with almost robotic delivery appear to draw upon Fo’s Anarchist in Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970), only here he is more concerned with enforcing the law than manoeuvring around it. There is also a kafkaesque element to the bureaucrat and his role within this dystopian world leaves one reminded often of Josef K’s predicament The Trial (1925). The focus on immigration is utilised at times to draw attention to today’s politicised immigration concerns and alarming refugee crisis, but again the inaccessibility of the narrative holds the play back from making the points it appears to be trying to deliver.
“Old Joe’s” is managed by Petra (Paul McAleer) an eccentric French drag queen who attempts to claim some ownership of the establishment through Old Joe – a character represented by an empty birdcage, the being within which seemingly has powers to converse with the dead. More characters arrive on the scene: the Czech dictator Vojta (Raphael Ruiz) attempts to stake a claim to the establishment, the Finnish Naomi (Anne Pajunen) who has a secret buried within the depths of her suitcase, the German-Japanese gangster Yamato (Simon Stache), Yamato’s rival (an unnamed drifter played by Sam Fourness), and the recently widowed Marina (Stephanie Degreas) who has interesting magical talents. This is indeed an eclectic mix of characters representing various nations, yet most remain underdeveloped and their connections to each other are often left either under- or unexplained – although it is arguable that this is intentional in order to leave room for audience interpretation.
The script is steeped in intelligent literary and cinematic allusions, especially in the character of Naomi who speaks often in references. One notable example of this is when, after the central bureaucrat confesses his love for her, she simply replies, “Had we but world enough and time”: the first line from Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress (1681). She also later quotes the most famous line from Gone With The Wind (1939): “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. These references represent well-thought out attempt to contribute to a rather difficult canon of absurdist theatre, but more time dwelt on the character would help elucidate their purpose further, as currently it is hard to work out the precise function they serve.
Nostalgia is a central tenet of Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill. The characters are all longing for better times and the establishment of “Old Joe’s” itself appears to be a relic of the past. The audience are frequently informed of an incident that changed everything (a terrorist attack which killed many of the characters’ loved ones) and the totality of this incident’s impact continues into the present. Events seem to repeat themselves and these deceased friends and relations even converse with the characters from beyond the grave through Old Joe. The standout performance in this production came from Stephanie Degreas (who also co-wrote the piece) in the role of Marina. Her command of the audience and stage presence provided a captivating energy to the piece. While much of the pacing of the play was a little erratic, Degreas’s performance helped drive the plot and her backstory was one of the most complete and well explained.
While this is a piece that still needs considerable work, it was its first performance and not one lacking in potential: the ideas and originality of the play did shine through in parts and one gets the feeling that this talented group of actors can make these themes more apparent with a tighter script. The lack of a tangible plot in this absurdist narrative makes it difficult for audiences to engage fully with the piece, but with some redrafting this can certainly be improved. Ultimately, Old Joe’s Fish ‘n’ Chill is conceptually interesting, but it feels as if it is attempting too much in delving into the backstories of so many characters in the space of one hour, and this unfortunately negates its overall impact. This piece from a group of young performers is however a bold new venture and with some refining it certainly can be taken forward.