“Work. Enjoy. Improve.”
This might sound like an Orwellian translation of some college’s motto, but it’s the striking mantra that hangs over half the stage, clad in clinical blue and white, one of the first details the audience notices as it enters.
Wish List by Cambridge alumna Katherine Soper is an extremely well-chosen script to put on in the small space of the Playroom. It follows Tamsin, a young woman struggling from temp-job to temp-job in order to support herself and her brother, Dean, who despite having left school is unable to get a job (or leave the house) due to his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Similar to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake in its critique of the modern welfare system, excessive bureaucracy and structural flaws, Soper’s award-winning script seeks out and exposes the holes in societies’ institutions through themes of sparseness and repetition, which director Jessica Murdoch and her team tease-out well.
The pre-set features the entire small cast buzzing, milling, stressing around the stage. This was perhaps one of the only ways in which the Playroom’s size did the production little favours (such a pre-set would have had a much greater impact, I think, in a larger, more conventional theatre; nonetheless, it still managed to aid the play’s atmosphere of monotony and claustrophobia). One wall is Tamsin and Dean’s tiny flat: a basic kitchen diner. Against the other is stacked box upon box underneath the aforementioned slogan: this is the workplace. Set designer Claire Yuanqing Zhang deserves much credit for this clear design, which leaves each location lingering in the mind from scene to scene, as if Tamsin can’t escape from work when at home, nor home when at work. It’s a clarity aided by the slick lighting design of Johnny King and Emily Brailsford, which moves seamlessly from homely warm to harsh, corporate tube-lights.
A particular highlight of the set design is the use of Corpus Door, upon which the play hinges. This functions as the outside of the flat’s bathroom where Tamsin, played by the brilliant Billie Collins, stands to talk to Dean. However, Corpus Corner is the inside of the bathroom, where Dean, played by Lucas Marsden-Smedley, spends most of his time attending to his hair. Here, Murdoch’s blocking is fantastic in creating a physical distance between the two across the stage which mimics the distance of a wall both physically and emotionally. Indeed, the Playroom as a venue well complements the sense of claustrophobia in the script: the fate that comes from the inside of envelopes, the job which packs box into box, and the sanctuary of the bathroom.
When Tamsin finally secures a job packing boxes for an Amazon-like delivery company, things seem to be looking up. Collins plays the character with an admirable realism, encouraging us to sympathise with her without evoking any sort of self-pity. The dialogue between her and co-worker Luke, played by the charming Hannah Shury-Smith, was so realistic I was left questioning whether it was written into the script or might have been ad-libbed. The repetition of the pair’s scenes is emphasised by Murdoch’s decision to have them pick up items to be delivered (such as meatloaf records, dildos, hair gel) then pack, unpack, and repack the same two boxes. Ellie Cole as the character of ‘The Lead’ did well to convey an apparent soullessness which gradually softened into flickers of humanity, though still performed with a certain harshness.
Marsden-Smedley is sensitive in his portrayal of the challenging role of Dean. His control both vocally – of monotony and volume – and bodily – the understated playing of his ‘rituals’ and facial tics – created a very convincing character which it would easily have been possible to overplay. The portrayal of Dean was also helped by a well-chosen and executed sound design which, as well as being perfectly timed to complete scene changes, communicated the intensity of Dean’s experiences, a high-pitched whine increasing in volume as a compulsion began to set in.
Murdoch and her team have chosen a fantastic, relevant and important play which, by grappling with the way institutions affect mental health, is extremely pertinent to Cambridge students. I do not hesitate to recommend this production. It is thought-provoking, conveys a strong yet sensitively-presented message which hardly ever – the odd rather sermonising moment in Soper’s script (such as when The Lead ponders regarding the origins of t-shirts) aside – lurches into didacticism. Indeed, the play is left rather unresolved, to suggest this frustrating cycle will go on and on. Furthermore, the show is raising money for CPSL Mind: a local charity which works to support those living with mental-health challenges, and to tackle any surrounding stigma in our communities; another reason to go and see it, and further evidence of the sensitivity and care with which this whole production was brought to the stage.