Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre

This Scottish pitch-black comedy thriller gives Franz Kafka a run for his money.

By: Mar. 28, 2024
Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre
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Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre

A pitch-black comedy thriller which gives Franz Kafka a run for his money, Don’t.Make.Tea doesn’t hold back in its excoriating view of modern Britain.

It’s 2037 and Chris Dunlop is low. Low on funds, low on hope and just mentally low. Her oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy means that her eyesight is gradually failing her as is her mobility. Soon, she’ll be blind and in a wheelchair. On top of that, the government have frozen her benefits subject to a re-evaluation and the assessor‘s on his way…

This being the near future, everything is recognisably the same but slightly different. Chris may be skint but, like everyone else in that time, has a free Amazon Echo-like Able device to talk to. A new “Accessible Britain” has led to an Atos-like approach to benefits. Rather than trying to work out if claimants are in genuine need, the assessor is there to see if they are fit for work using an arbitrary and subjective points system. A former police detective, Chris thinks that she can outsmart the system: don’t answer the door too quickly, don’t sit down too fast and, whatever you do, don’t make tea. 

Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Andy Catlin

Scottish company Birds of Paradise and writer Robert Drummond have crafted a work of two very different halves. The first is a battle royale of words and wits as Chris (Gillian Dean) and assessor Ralph (Neil John Gibson) go head-to-head on her sofa. It’s a rat-a-tat back and forth that makes Best Of Enemies look like Waiting For Godot. Able (voiced by Richard Conlon) is a witty third wheel narrating the scenes aloud and commenting on the actions of those present. 

Ralph is eloquent and charismatic as the human face of an evil regime, his questions pushing Chris into one awkward confession after another. The exchanges get darker and darker with each passing minute. With a lie detector on her finger, Chris is forced to prevaricate and bullshit every which way in her desperate attempt to avoid a dreaded work assignment. 

After the first act cliffhanger, what follows is tonally a very different affair and, with extra characters introduced and the stakes now even higher, becomes more of a wickedly macabre sitcom. The topics are still the same but explored more deeply and through a more diffuse dynamic. The horror and inhumanity that came before are swapped out for a pacy comic thriller with twists and turns to spare. 

Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Andy Catlin

Drummond’s insightful script takes us on a wild journey with many a modern touchpoint. The pervasiveness of technology and its scary level of data capture - from our music preferences, conversations and locations to keeping tabs on our health and wealth - are front and centre. Even when the smart devices are assisting us, asks Drummond, are they helping you more than their makers? His approach to disability is never condescending and, together with tense direction from Robert Softley Gale and a luminous set from Grant Anderson, there is a very real sense of emotional commitment to the tragedy portrayed here.

An important factor in this production is how accessible Bird of Paradise have made it. As well as Able verbally describing almost everything that happens, there are surtitles above the stage and a BSL interpreter (Emery Hunter) is present throughout. All three elements are seamlessly blended into the story in a way that makes one wonder why more productions don’t do this.

Review: DON'T.MAKE.TEA, Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Andy Catlin

Ostensibly about disability, Don’t.Make.Tea will resonate with anyone who has ever run the bureacratic benefits gauntlet. Amid the morbid hilarity and mocking bleakness, this play serves as both an indictment of current approaches and a warning of where they could ultimately lead.

Don’t.Make.Tea continues at Soho Theatre until 6 April

Photo credit: Andy Catlin




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