LAURA PATERSON is let down by an ambitious drama that descends into cliché

Cambridge Theatre Eli Keren New Cellars Pembroke Pompeii

Pembroke New Cellars, 18th February, 9.30pm, £6/£5

An ambitious endeavour, Pompeii depicts five people who bond and reflect on life during their final hour before an apocalypse. Unfortunately this production is apocalyptic on more than one level.

Eli Keren’s play bravely confronts the challenging topics of friendship, the meaning of life, and the legacy we will leave behind. Regrettably, having confounded philosophers for centuries, these great questions also appear to have outsized Pompeii. Although the conversation readily engages with these issues, no particularly original insights are given. The speculation of the way future civilisations may look back on our lifestyle shows promise of being interesting, but eventually descends into waving socks around. In addition the central prayer provides some less than subtle bible bashing.

Pompeii takes place in the characters’ lounge and the plot consists of a series of interactions between the individuals, as they deal with their impending death and gradually bond. The characters and scenes often appear clichéd. One example is a game the characters devise of confessing their darkest secrets, which include weeing in a goldfish bowl and snogging a croissant. I feel like I’m witnessing some tragic general fines on a rather awkward swap and the audience also seem to be squirming rather than laughing.  Pembroke New Cellars is an intimate venue, but even this small space sometimes feels a bit oversized for the fifteen-ish supportive friends-and-family types who make up the audience.

Apocalypse tempered by enthusiasm

Apocalypse tempered by enthusiasm

The acting begins promisingly. Katherine Bond, who plays Harry, limps in with a degree of wild-eyed desperation appropriate to someone facing the end of the world. Her enthusiastic wincing means her wounded leg appears convincingly painful. However the zealous acting all too soon descends into melodrama and the first half is little more than a giant shouting match, as the characters take out their anger at their situation on each other. Pembroke New Cellars has excellent acoustics, but the combination of this and the ample bellowing of the cast resulted in a physically painful experience. I understand hysteria may be a realistic reaction to an apocalypse, but after spending half an hour wincing every time a character opened their mouth, with my vision blurred by a headache, I begin to think it was overdone.

All the actors nevertheless demonstrated superlative enthusiasm throughout the performance. They managed to create some affecting scenes, with believable and touching manifestations of grief at Harry’s mum’s recent death.

Pompeii is more like a melancholy village play than a remarkable work of drama. It is however an enthusiastic and occasionally insightful attempt to tackle some weighty topics.