The scenario reminds me of that famous final scene from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, where Strangelove, the former Nazi scientist now working for the US government, lays out his fantastical plan to preserve a “nucleus of human specimens”:
The radioactivity would never penetrate a mineshaft some thousands of feet deep, and in a matter of weeks, sufficient improvement in dwelling space could easily be provided. […] Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time and little to do.
Where Strangelove finishes, Delectable Shelter begins. Writer/director Benedict Hardie describes, by way of a Mel Brooks-type farce, the installation and propagation of a buffoonish bourgeois family in one of these mineshaft shelters.
It’s Reginald, the father (Anthony Mackey), Biddy, his sunshiny wife (Yesse Spence), their son Grayson (Thomas Conroy) and his partner (Simone Page Jones). Rounding out the little company is Tor (Josh Price), a cynical engineer from a shadowy organisation called “The Program”. The play begins as the shelter is sealed, not to be opened for 350 years.
The shelter, the work of company designer Claude Marcos, is the highlight of this production. Hypnotic silver-fern wallpaper with matching kneeling chairs and a van Gogh lightbox all in a claustrophobic five-sided container. It’s a design that, like the singing, stylishly points the strangeness and oppressiveness of the utopia these survivors will seek to construct.
The singing. The singing is another highlight. The cast, resplendent in their salmon robes (costumes, Esther Marie Hayes), divide the three acts of the play by performing a selection of eighties’ love ballads, transcribed in the style of Bach’s choral music (Benny Davis and Nathan Gilkes). Thus we get beautiful a cappella versions of songs from Foreigner, Billy Ocean, Air Supply and, right at the start, Roxette’s “It Must Have been Love” (yes, that’s technically the nineties, but still it’s hilarious).
The performance is very funny in parts, especially some of the physical humour, but it lacks impact. There is a careful imbrication of keywords and references that maintain a comic unity throughout, but this is a very superficial kind of unity.
The farcical elements have the feeling of unreconstructed late 50s/early 60s slapstick. This era of comedy is fertile ground for a playwright, no doubt, but what seems to be missing here is any element of subversion or critique, the sort of self-aware attitude for which The Hayloft Project are usually celebrated.
Although billed as a satire of privilege, nothing seems integrally challenged by the method, mood or narrative. Dr Strangelove again:
When they go down into the mine, everyone would still be alive. There would be no shocking memories, and the prevailing mood would be one of nostalgia for those left behind.
I’d suggest that nostalgia is indeed the prevailing mood of this play: there is nothing at all grim hidden beneath its wallpaper. It’s very gentle. While there are many jokes that turn on the audience’s recognition of the absurdity of middle-class fears—especially racist fears—the nostalgia in which these jokes are wrapped implies sympathy and, at times, commemoration, so that inherent in the “satire of privilege” seems to be a “celebration of privilege”.
Once the action progresses through a few generations and enters more fully into absurdist humour, the realisation of the promised utopia, the direction loosens up and the comedy hits its stride. The satire still tends toward the sentimental, but there seems to be more fun and life about the caricatures.
There’s no denying that this production offers a lot of laughs, and some of the production elements are spectacular; but I think that if it had been more sharply targeted, the laughs might have had more impact.