Lloyd Evans

Burning questions

And its writer, would-be radical James Fritz, is an antique conservative of the dullest stripe

Burning questions
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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, until 6 January 2018

A new play at the Bush with a catchy political title. Parliament Square introduces us to Kat, a young Scots mum, who abandons her baby girl and her devoted husband and commutes to London to kill herself. She doesn’t want to die but shrill voices in her head are urging her to turn her body into a human fireball on College Green, opposite parliament. Her political cause is unclear. Her personal hopes are plainly set out: death and posthumous fame. Everything is ready. Kat douses herself in unleaded petrol (it’s not a carbon-neutral protest), and as the flames engulf her flesh she emits a blood-curdler from her solar plexus. ‘The worst scream we’ve ever heard,’ says the stage direction, an aim that the production achieves with more success than one might wish. But her protest is cut short when a passer-by puts her out with a coat. Paramedics arrive. Kat is carted off to hospital. Many scenes of laborious yelling ensue as she recovers. First she’s in bed. Later she takes a few tentative and screech-assisted steps.

Her costume in the burns unit looks a bit fancy dress. Orange wrappings encase her upper torso. More bandages, also orange, grip her ankles tightly together so that she waddles in the upright position like a mermaid attempting a zebra crossing. Her mother shows up and fires ratty questions at her. Why? she wants to know. Kat answers vaguely. ‘I couldn’t just sit around watching the news any more. I had to do something.’ Mum isn’t satisfied. This petrol-fuelled stunt couldn’t possibly justify widowing a husband and leaving a baby girl an orphan. ‘It’s her world too,’ wheedles Kat, with casual self-righteousness. ‘People are suffering.’

The production is a heap of puzzles. The first enigma surrounds Kat’s bipolar disorder. She starts the play in the depths of mental illness with her mind entirely possessed by a bullying demon. ‘Stick to the fucking plan, you idiot,’ harangues her alter ego. ‘YOU’RE A SUPERSTAR.’ But after her suicide attempt, Kat has been magically liberated from her psychotic tenants. No therapy, no medication. An instant cure. The emotional world created by the writer James Fritz is exceptionally harsh and disobliging. Everyone is spiky, aggressive, foul-mouthed. ‘Fuck you,’ says Kat to a cashier who prints her train ticket. Kat’s physiotherapist describes herself as ‘a stubborn prick who’s not going to leave you alone’. When Kat bumps into a colleague, she chats to her amiably until the colleague leaves. Then out come Kat’s envenomed fangs: ‘On and on she goes, blathering, chattering every fucking day.’ The script is marred by poor research. A hospital employee tries to convert Kat to evangelical Christianity. An announcement on the Tube begins obsequiously, ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ and continues, ‘we’re going to be held here due to a passenger incident on the tracks up ahead.’ Every Londoner knows how wrong that sounds.

Kat makes sure that no one learns about the political motives behind her suicide attempt but a doctor discovers her secret. ‘The country feels sick,’ he minces. He spreads the word to other NHS staff, who endorse Kat. ‘I understand,’ the doctor tells her. ‘A lot of us here do. Just thought you should know that. Thought it might help.’ Help what? Help her kill herself properly next time?

It’s a relief when Kat leaves the burns unit. She returns home calmer, wiser and a little clumsier than before. She sets light to her clothes while cooking — in a comic repeat of her earlier mishap — but the scene doesn’t get as many laughs as it might. Time passes. Jo, her baby daughter, reaches adolescence and the turning years are marked by actors singing ‘Happy Birthday, dear Jo-oh’. They do it 15 times. During this not terribly gripping passage we’re told that society is breaking apart. Assaults and burglaries are rising. Aggressive vagrancy spreads. There are riots and looting. Decent folk rush to leave their newly terrorised neighbourhoods. To ram the message home the script uses a stage direction — ‘the world gets worse’ — on 73 occasions. This is the most deliriously pessimistic play of the year.

By the end, Kat has acquired the authority of a political veteran who advises youngsters tempted by suicide. Her decision is, yes, do it. Yes to death. Yes to self-combustion. Seriously, that’s the message: kill yourself, it’ll improve the world for the survivors. Perhaps a Darwinian logic is at work. This play wants to enrich our democracy by purging the misguided and the suicidal from the electoral register. More likely, the script appeals to that part of the theatre that believes it knows politics better than professional politicians. It won a Bruntwood prize in 2015. Its radicalism is indistinct enough to seem provocative but really it’s weak, confused and dispiriting. It argues that extremism is the best way to engage in politics, that moderation is folly, and that show-off terrorists deserve more respect than those who engage in honest debate. The author is a zealous youngster who, like many in his faction, believe that his conformist orthodoxy is a species of rebellion. He’s entirely harmless — which he may not want to hear. And he’s an antique conservative of the dullest stripe.