Friday 10 March 2023

Theatre review: Brilliant Jerks

Capping a really strong week at the theatre for me, Joseph Charlton's Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse Borough follows three people who work at very different levels for a ride-hailing app, from the founder to a long-standing driver. The hook may be a look behind the scenes of NOT UBER but Charlton's play is more concerned with a toxic tech-bro culture that affects everyone from the top down and could apply to any number of huge corporations or ambitious start-ups. Tyler (Shubham Saraf) co-founded the company with his friend when they ended up stranded in Paris after a tech conference, unable to find a cab. He looks back at how this grew into an app that expanded to hundreds of cities worldwide, in parallel with the story of his relationship with the woman he thought was the love of his life. But with the company's success, the senior developers start behaving increasingly out of control, culminating in a seedy night in a Seoul karaoke bar/brothel.

Tyler's girlfriend warns him that his aggressive management style is influencing the way his executives behave, and that these attitudes are built from the top down; his refusal to listen to her could cost him both his relationship and his company.

At the opposite end are the people actually doing the job of driving people around, and in Glasgow recovering addict Mia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) is one of a small percentage of female drivers, who mostly enjoys her work but does sometimes have to put up with aggressive and sexual behaviour from male passengers. And somewhere in the middle are the software coders: As a gay man Sean (Sean Delaney) occupies an awkward middle ground in the aggressive "bro" culture, benefitting from it when he gets promoted over more experienced colleague Amy, but also getting roped in by her to argue the case for the few female coders to be treated as equal to the men. When he and his closeted boss have a fumble in the back of one of their own NOT AN UBER NOBODY SAID UBERs Sean comes under more scrutiny than he would like.

The play rotates around the three narrators, with the actors playing the supporting characters in each other's stories. Katie-Ann McDonough's production keeps things pretty simple, without costume changes, so it's down to the three actors' strong character and accent work to immediately let us know who they're playing; the production's also very clear on whose story we're in at any given time, so there's never any confusion. I appreciated how despite Hazel Low's design being in-the-round and a lot of the play consisting of monologues, it felt like every side of the audience was always being let in. (I also liked how the central table in Low's design mirrored their logo for STOP SAYING UBER IT'S DEFINITELY NOT UBER, although I'd have liked the eccentric centrepiece to have been used a bit more in the performance.)

The stories themselves tease at quite soapy ideas (never more so than when Mia realises the child she's just collected in her car is the son she gave up for adoption) but tend to pull back to something a bit more low-key and relatable. There's a couple of recurring themes about tech companies I found interesting - aside from the toxic culture there's also the idea of "technical debt," involving companies cobbling together overcomplicated code that just about works so that they can launch the company, then once the big bucks start coming in hiring an army of experts like Sean to tidy it up so that it doesn't eventually come crashing down. There's a lot of funny lines and plenty of high-energy scenes but there's also a quiet sadness to Brilliant Jerks, which makes it, with no small contribution from the cast's performances, both entertaining and relatably human despite its boardroom battles and Vegas blow-outs.

Brilliant Jerks by Joseph Charlton is booking until the 25th of March at Southwark Playhouse Borough's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter.

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