the Olivier’s least-worst new play of 2017, Rory Mullarkey returns to the Royal Court where his somewhat disjointed style of playwriting goes up a notch to fully embrace Absurdism. Pity opens on a generic town square – it used to be the Market Square but there isn’t a market any more – where an ice cream stall has been set up, and Francesca Mills runs a tombola before the show starts. A man named only as Person (Abraham Popoola) starts to narrate his day – unemployed, he people-watches as it’s the only way to spend his time that doesn’t cost anything – and meets a Professor (Paul Bentall) who’s in the middle of a reactionary rant to his daughter when he’s struck by lightning and killed instantly. Person responds by proposing to Daughter (Sophia Di Martino) and the two marry without getting round to learning each other’s names.
But the honeymoon is cut short when first the local department store where Daughter works, and then the ice cream van are blown up, leaving a tragic trail of melted candles and ice cream.
From here things descend into the increasingly surreal, as Helena Lymbery trades playing Dolores Umbridge for Theresa May (in other words she’s been typecast,) as an unnamed but pretty recognisable Prime Minister arrives in town completely unable to say or do anything to help, so she sings a song about sandwiches instead (even then it's a song about how bad she is at choosing between sandwich options.) As she fails to help things get worse - the explosions continue, and now there's also shootings, and an all-out war breaks out between the forces of the Red Warlord (Sandy Grierson) and Blue Warlord (Lymbery,) both of whom have actual miniature tanks they drive onto the stage.
Sam Pritchard's production deals with the play's juxtaposition of horror and surreal comedy (in an otherwise mild-mannered group of refugees, Refugee David [Paul G Raymond] is pretty keen to move on to the cannibalism stage as soon as possible) by turning it into a cartoon, highlighted by Pete Malkin's sound design, Annemarie Woods' costumes and especially Chloe Lamford's set. Where the relentless oddness succeds is that the comedy mostly hits the mark - there's a lot of good laughs and the constantly increasing stakes as characters keep dying and the very world cracks open mean it doesn't become too predictable. This kind of absurdity is quite hard to keep going for an extended time though, and there are definite lulls, but it always just about manages to pick itself up from them.
Pity seems to have been pretty Marmite (even the publicity now seems to be playing on this,) as well as having already garnered a reputation for being impenetrable. On the first note I came out on the positive side but can see how it might irritate some; on the second point it's almost worrying to have to disagree: At no point did what it was trying to say seem obscure. With the news over the last few years it seems inevitable that Theatre of the Absurd would see a resurgence and Pity, whose events make the jaw drop equally out of horror and confusion, is all too familiar - Mullarkey's staged the feeling of turning your phone on in the morning with a sinking dread of WHAT THE HELL NOW?
Pity by Rory Mullarkey is booking until the 11th of August at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Helen Murray.