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A Plague on All Your Houses

by on 15 July 2022

We’re All Doomed; Or Are We?

A Plague on All Your Houses

by Marcia Kelson

Angels Wings, Bitesize Festival at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith until 16th July

Review by Nick Swyft

In the same way that if you start reading a medical handbook, you find out that you have everything in the book, apart from the Preface, I came away from this play feeling quite ill, which probably meant that the play worked.  (I’m better now, thanks for asking!)

Now part of the July-long BiteSize Festival,  A Plague on All Your Houses is written by Marcia Kelson, who was longlisted for the Papatango prize in 2016 and 2017.  She also won the Best Newcomer award at the Brighton Fringe in 2021. 

Using various scenes throughout history, we learnt some interesting facts, which were cleverly woven together to show that however people reacted in, say, 1500 BC that we react in the same way today.  For example a couple stranded on a cruise ship off Sicily in 2020 at the start of the Covid outbreak had to remain on board, as did the crews of the plague ships who tried to land there in 1347, on pain of death: a sobering thought.  Some facts were just interesting in their own right.  For example, despite living through a plague-ridden era equally affecting the theatres of the time, Shakespeare never used it as a plot device in any of his plays!  (Although the word “plague” is referred to 105 times.)

So what have we learnt?  Social distancing, we always knew about, though we didn’t describe it in that way.  (Vaccines are new.)  Apart from that governments, businesses and individuals react in remarkably similar ways for good or ill.  Maybe the important lesson is that outbreaks of plague are nearly always accompanied by war, though this didn’t come across until the final scene.  After all, it makes sense.  Although these wars may not result directly from pandemics, we have the ingredients to exacerbate them: poverty, a heightened fear of the ‘dirty foreigner’ etc.

It is hard to do up to the minute political satire in a scripted play, as things can change by the minute.  While the scene set this June in the Prime Minister’s office raised a few chuckles (and let’s face it, who would miss the opportunity to satirise Boris Johnson?) it rather missed the mark following last week’s events.  Should it have been rewritten or removed?  Honestly, I can’t say.  It didn’t detract too much from the overall impact and it did raise quite a laugh.

Each scene was performed by a cast of four actors, all of them playing significant roles.  I felt that Catherine Allison’s delivery of the spoilt passenger on board the doomed cruise ship was very true to life.  Morgan Black made a great put-upon press officer in Boris Johnson’s scene.  Ben May provided a very authoritative portrayal of Shakespeare.  Last but not least, I felt for Richard McKenna’s French farmer who destroyed France’s wine production in 1860 with his introduction of an experimental new world vine.  After all, it’s the sort of thing we all might have done, if you think about it.

Finally, a special mention has to go to Rachel Wilkes, who sat at her keyboard providing the background music which set the mood.  She might have been forgotten, were it not for the great performance of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl, reworded to suit the message as Fleas on Rats.

So are we all going to hell in a handbasket?  The final scene, set in war-torn Eastern Europe in 2025 suggested we were.  Bubonic plague, gas masks and Molotov Cocktails are apparently our future.  Maybe so, but the optimist in me says that we’ll probably work it out in some way.  Also, while such messages maybe horrifying to us, when you live through it, they never seem quite that bad in retrospect.  Sure, we may not be able to go outside again without masks or even full PPE, but we’ll get on with our lives like we always do, and memories of being able to do that will be consigned to tearful but irrelevant nostalgia.

Nick Swyft, July 2022

Photography by Martin Jessop

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