The War Has Not Yet Started in Theatre Royal Plymouth's rep season at Southwark Playhouse, Glenn Waldron's The Here and This and Now takes a look at pharmaceutical companies on an intimate scale and, eventually, a global one. Niall (Simon Darwen) leads a team of pharmaceutical reps on a team-building away-day. Alongside games where they recite their sales mantra of "Captivate! Associate! Detonate! Kill!" the central point is for them all to rehearse Niall's trademark pitch to receptionists, a cheesy story about his sick son designed to create empathy and get them five minutes with a senior consultant to sell discount liver-spot cream. Gemma (Tala Gouveia) is new to the team and enthusiastically delivers her own version of the pitch, but the other two members have been working for the company much longer and have a much more cynical outlook on what they're doing.
In a role that could have been written for him, Andy Rush's Robbie gives the comic highlight in his piss-take of the standard spiel - his disinterest in what he's doing is palpable, but he knows his job's secure because an abandoned medical degree means he's the only salesman who actually knows what anything he's saying means.
Becci Gemmell's Helen, on the other hand, has been moved to a sales job from elsewhere in the company and is clearly too timid and unconvincing to make it past the receptionists. This mismatched team play their motivational games and we discover some background information about the company they work for - one that's always notoriously far behind the rest of Big Pharma's research, and whose employee perks are all leftovers from failed investments - and during their breaks Robbie and Gemma flirt in what could turn out to be the start of something more. But for the second half of the play, Waldron reveals this to have been largely misdirection, as an offhand comment about overreliance on antibiotics turns out to be planting the real theme of the play.
Things are much darker when we skip to the year 2024, when Helen has lost most of her family to a plague resulting from that overreliance; the confidence-building from that away-day has left her willing to do anything to save her last remaining son. Simon Stokes' production does a slick job of balancing the very abrupt change in tone, largely by maintaining a sense of black comedy as the stakes get higher. It's a very clever piece and highly effective - Rush was one of the main reasons I booked and his comic performance is one of the most memorable things about the play, but the more serious scenes deliver a gut-punch that stands out just as much. For the play's coda, the recorded voice of Bill Paterson is an appropriately reassuring choice for a speech that makes the bad guy the hero, presenting the pharmaceutical company whose over-selling killed millions as the saviour; in some ways it's more chilling than some of the violence leading up to it.
The Here and This and Now by Glenn Waldron is booking in repertory until the 10th of February at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.