A 26-year-old woman and her 28-year-old partner live painfully average lives. They work in average jobs, make average livings – live acceptably, in what passes for a kind of average success. The only thing that lightens their long days of commuting and office daydreams is their love for one another, and even that feels strained and perished. Brad Birch’s play stretches his audience’s capacity for tedium almost to breaking point, in sympathy with those of his wilting characters, and then tosses in the possibility of rebellion, or escape. It’s a kind of American Beauty for the quarter-life crisis, but one that’s sadly too mired in cliché and structurally flawed to make the most of its alluring premise.
The characters are nameless, the script labels them Him and Her and feel only loosely anchored in their worlds. They’ve abandoned all ambition to the greater good of mutual contentment, only to find that in so far as it exists, its presence is only felt in transitory oases: a Christmas morning in one another’s company or a mandy-fuelled fumble in the dawn-light. They speak to the audience far more than to each other, often reciting their thoughts in a dead-eyed sing-song. At times it feels an eloquent way of expressing an un-confessable distance between them, but at others it leaves the humour and emotion dangerously sedentary.
Birch’s play tries for hypnotic, but there are too many clanging lines, too much that is cringingly effortful. The rhythm of common life, of wakings and workings and sleep is continuously disrupted by try-hard stabs at melodiousness: ‘The plastic highs of MSG/and echoing carbohydrates.’ Grains of untruth niggle like a stone in your shoe. The gruesome sexual politics of Her office, His thoughts of violent rebellion and love of Call of Duty, they may reflect common experiences but the way they are related and discussed feels distinctly off-the-peg.
Lara Rossi’s performance as Her brings some much-needed life to Birch’s script, displaying excellent comic timing and a gift for the sudden, shuddering emotional gear-shift. Joe Dempsie is less convincing, and though he warms as the tension rises and he builds towards his Falling Down moment, he’s often just a little stagey. They work well together, though, and the passages in which the tone drifts from dreamily reflective to fired and urgent stand out sharply.
There’s a real energy to the violent, sexual shattering of societal expectations in the final third, where Nadia Latif’s direction – somewhat flat until then – sparks into life, but Birch has given his characters nowhere to go from there. There’s no crime in leaving a point unclarified, particularly if an absence of the absolute is part of it, but by spending so long to wind down to a standstill, the play shifts from winning back attention to overstaying its welcome. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Even Stillness… fades away smack bang in the middle of burning out.