Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Stands alongside Under Milk Wood: Shedding a Skin, at Soho Theatre, reviewed

Plus: a bizarre scattering of illogicalities from Dennis Kelly at Theatre Royal Stratford East

A fabulous piece of theatre, superbly performed by the writer, Amanda Wilkin: Shedding a Skin at Soho Theatre. Image: Helen Murray

Shedding a Skin opens with an office nightmare. Myah is a mixed-race employee in a predominantly white firm who gets summoned to the boss’s room for a group photo. The only other workers present are black and they greet each other with the ‘black nod’ as she calls it. And the group includes a black cleaner dressed in a suit to ‘bump up the numbers’. She tells the boss that this attempt to promote racial harmony simply instils mistrust and division but she gets sacked for rebelling against the firm’s ‘fakery’. Next, her layabout boyfriend, a musician who lives on a barge, gives her the elbow. Now she’s homeless, jobless and single. A great start. The viewer is immediately engaged with the efforts of this sparky, intelligent character to rebuild her ruined life.

She moves in with an elderly lesbian from Jamaica, Mildred, who keeps her flat spotless and insists that Myah goes clubbing every weekend to find a boyfriend. The wise and indomitable Mildred seems too good to be true. She forces Myah to reveal the cost of every item bought from the organic grocer’s and she cackles with sardonic, grannyish laughter when she learns how badly they overcharge their customers. Myah hears that Mildred has attacked three public school boys who were bullying a tramp near her council flat. She floored all three – bish, bash, bosh – by clobbering them over the skull with her handbag. She’s 79. Could that happen? Probably not but the tale has enough charm to suppress one’s scepticism.

This play could stand alongside Under Milk Wood

Oddly, the play embodies the scourge it hopes to tackle. The racism crisis that has emerged in Britain over the past two years has made Myah’s life miserable. Being mixed-race, she feels too white among black people and too black among white people. When she’s mistaken over the phone for a white woman she feels insulted. And she says so out loud. Whiteness offends her. Yet she’s unaware how bigoted that sounds.

These are very small failings in a fabulous piece of theatre, superbly performed by the writer, Amanda Wilkin, who has multiple comic gifts. The script is a wonder. Its narrative sweep, its constant inventiveness, its psychological acuity, its deft literary touches and its kindly and humane eye suggest a distinguished forebear. This could stand alongside Under Milk Wood.

After the End is a drama from 2005 by Dennis Kelly who wrote the book for Matilda: the Musical. The setting is a yellow nuclear bunker owned by Mark, the office nerd, who bought it accidentally when he purchased his flat. ‘It happened to have an old shelter in the back,’ he says to Louise, a beautiful colleague, whom he tricks into entering the bunker by claiming that an atomic war is in progress. ‘They’ve let off a nuclear bomb,’ he tells her vaguely. Louise is an intelligent career woman but she falls for Mark’s whoppers about nuclear war. And instead of trying to contact her family or friends, she settles down to life in the bunker which is empty apart from two single beds and an escape hatch.

The play proceeds like a flat-share sitcom set in a caravan with no electricity. Mark stabs holes in cans of Pedigree Chum and heats the meat on a portable stove. Next he decides to withhold Louise’s share of the dog food. Not sure why. Perhaps he wants something from her. Sex, probably. Then he relents and gives her some chocolate. No idea why. They start to fight. The knife changes hands several times as the kidnapper becomes the captive, and vice versa, and these scenes of violence are filled with witless swear words and banal insults.

At press night the response of the crowd was unpredictable. When Mark grabbed Louise by the throat, the audience gasped with horror. When Louse seized the knife and threatened to castrate Mark, they all laughed. The brutal ding-dong between the pair obscures a burning question. How’s the nuclear war going? No answers are given. Did the nuclear war even happen? That’s unclear too. This is quite a large issue to skate over in a drama set in a nuclear bunker.

The moral of the play is that all men are rapists and all women are victims. Which is hardly news. A final scene, set in a different location, offers the view that raped women secretly fancy their attackers. Who allowed that barmy prejudice to slip through the net? Director Lyndsey Turner must take some of the blame for this bizarre scattering of illogicalities. The play is nearly 20 years old but purports to be contemporary. With a few changes, like the addition of smartphones, it might have become less incredible. Kelly has already disowned his debut play, Brendan’s Visit. ‘Let’s never talk about that again ever,’ he said. Those wise words should apply to this knackered carthorse as well.