First published in The Times, Monday August 22 2016
The most powerful dystopian dramas are those that resound with the nerve-jangling ring of familiarity. This new play by Afsaneh Gray, set in a post-Brexit UK in which “Britishness” is defined by the state, raises the hairs on the back of your neck precisely because we are already so far down the road towards the destination Gray so entertainingly portrays.
The piece is set mainly in the anonymous waiting room of a government office, in which three disparate women wait to be interrogated (sorry, interviewed) by a dispassionate bureaucrat. Their census records have rung alarm bells because of their mixed racial heritage and it is now up to them to convince the authorities of their understanding of so-called “British values” or risk such punishments as forfeiture of their access to public services or, in the case of Dilek Rose’s wonderfully ditzy tapestry artist, having their benefits cut.
In a nod to Philip K Dick’s sci-fi story, Minority Report, all three women risk having their names entered in the sinister “pre-criminal space”, should their answers prove less than satisfactory, with the ultimate sanction being deportation. The fact that none of these women has even visited the country of origin of their forefathers and mothers is of little interest to their interrogator.
Gray’s script is dense in ideas about the hybrid nature of identity (the title derives from the fact that an octopus has a far more intricate DNA than humans) and the tensions that arise when such complexity runs foul of proscribed ways of being. Music is an important thread in Pia Furtado’s sparky production for Fine Mess Theatre, with the trio of very different women finding common ground in the rich, diverse tapestry of Britain’s pop culture.
While engagingly performed by the cast of three and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Gray does lose control of the story about ten minutes before the end, when the action begins to feel a little scattergun, with the characters reduced to angry mouthpieces for various social ills. The basic premise is inspired, however, and with a few more tweaks, you feel this one could run and run.