Interesting dialogue and characterisation make up for some predictable political commentary, writes MATTHEW WOLFSON.

Cambridge Theatre truthspeak

Pembroke New Cellars, 9.30pm, Tue 5th – Saturday 9th February

by Guy Clark and Ellen Robertson

directed by Elle Ramel and Claire-Emily Martin


There’s not much that’s new in either No Comment or A Civilised Society, the two half hour long dark comedies that make up Truthspeak. We’re given some over-the-top reminders of the dehumanizing media complex and of our collective callousness toward poverty. But this doesn’t matter much, thanks to good writing and above all  the cast, who bring a manic energy that’s almost never distracting – and often inspiring.

No Comment is one part coming-of-age story and one part media satire, in which likeable, determined journalist Sam happens upon a major DSK-style scandal to which he has special access thanks to family connections. Sam leaps for his chance and ends up losing his integrity; but funny lines, stimulating characters and occasional moments of pathos make this predictable story absorbing.

The characters are really the play’s chief merit. Besides earnest Sam, there’s his pert, guarded co-worker Alice, his genial, out of work actor father; and the restless, dissatisfied and surprisingly sympathetic DSK-type, Cameron, whose character is written and acted with nuance and intelligence. There’s also the workplace gadfly, whose name I didn’t catch, but who has some of the play’s most memorable lines.

Admittedly, some moments are dangerously clichéd, mostly those of Sam’s soul-sucking boss Joanna, who ends every scene with pronouncements like: “You have the opportunity to impress me, don’t waste it”; “It’s a big wave, you might ride it”; and “you’re still in the spotlight, don’t screw it up”. (She also accuses poor Sam of having “daddy issues”.) But these few flaws are easily overmatched by the play’s overall momentum.

A Civilised Society, on the other hand, succeeds in spite of its script’s momentum toward trite political pronouncements. We’re given four homeless people who pretend they’re the nation’s leaders solving “the homeless problem.” Through this device we’re treated to lengthy social commentaries that, putting it kindly, aren’t too profound. Government functionaries are presented (surprise!) as soul-sucking statisticians who speak Orwellian and who want to rid society of homeless people or else ruthlessly use them to burnish their public image. Not only is this unoriginal, but it’s also unrealistic: we’re not shown even a short satirical glimpse of the moralizing rhetoric and feel-good progressivism employed by the real-life Right and Left. These are techniques that really do paper over serious problems, and it would have been nice if the play had worked to expose them. Instead we’re given critiques of the fact that a national bureaucracy thinks of people in terms of statistics: never mind that this “inhumane” mentality also gave Britain the National Health Service.

Still, though, A Civilised Society ended up working for me, because when it stopped criticizing monstrous bureaucracy and focused on its characters, it was often deeply moving. These are people who sit around all day envisioning what it’s like to be powerful because if they stop, they have to face the horrifying reality of their own circumstances: when one of them wants to stop pretending, another asks, “If you stop, what will you do?” They’re energized and yearning, but they have nowhere to go. This is the kind of portrayal that makes you want to go out and agitate for public works programs: it’s a devastating reply to the hyper-moralistic critiques of poverty that, too often these past couple of years, pass for political discourse.