Ah, those heady days of undergraduate independence. Living out the rosé-tinted dream of shared housing, foul food and terrible boyfriends only for it to be replaced with… with what? In Titus Halder’s Escape The Scaffold, the relative freedom Grace (Rosie Sheehy), Aaron (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge) and Marcus (Charles Reston) experience as uni flatmates gives way to a familiar corporate capitalist adulthood plus an unfamiliar dystopian police state. When dealing with the former, Halder’s script is perceptive and amusing – particularly in its construction of the characters – but as the latter slowly takes over, the play becomes murkier than the three-day old contents of a discarded Weetabix bowl.
Marcus is the Joules-jacketed toff of the group, his capacity for compassion about as wide as his own pinstripes. He could be a nostalgia-inducing charmer, but pleasant images of wet Springer Spaniels and jam roly-poly evaporate when his drunken burbling morphs into racism. The evolution from grad scheme pin-up to a prick pricking holes in condom packets as part of a plan to get the little woman preggers is swifter than the rate at which he gets inebriated.
The ‘little woman’ is Grace, his university girlfriend constantly on the verge of dumping him – but never quite getting around to it, even after she starts cheating on him with Aaron. Grace would be an obvious target for sympathy. Her dreams of staying on to complete postgrad work, plus her amorphous commitment to ‘art’ and ‘writing’ are consistently undermined by Marcus who does what he can to turn her into an award-winning wifey with little more to concern her than keeping Marigolds in the kitchen and marigolds in the garden. The problem is that you don’t sympathise with her, not one bit. Because there’s nothing making her choose to slither up the property ladder by Marcus’s side rather than run off with the radical, artistic Aaron. For that matter, there’s nothing stopping her dumping both of them and staying put to pursue a PhD.
But wait! Because before this all becomes simply one version of I-believe-in-art-and-love Vs I-believe-in-rampant-capitalism, the omnipotent force these young people are pitted against is suddenly more than the world of 9-5 office jobs. There’s something nasty lurking out there in the dark. Something that ensures you have to buy maggot-infested meat on the black market and that an old mate will fall out of your cellar wearing a black sack over his head. You’ll have to make decisions about whether to let ‘them’ know, otherwise ‘they’ will be angry. Who ‘they’ are and how what otherwise resembles the modern UK got to be this way is never explained, interrogated or even fully integrated into the plot.
This is a shame because the earlier, more simplistic parts of the play contain some sharp pieces of dialogue capturing, in turn, the cynical motives behind ‘settling down’ and the paradoxical joy produced by using the first true moments of adulthood as a time to behave in a way that’s completely juvenile. There’s a lovely line where Aaron characterises Marcus’s desire to start a family as the need to “preserve yourself like jam.”
Equally, Mark Bailey’s set design is a delightfully detailed recreation of a home. The Victorian-style stained glass door is lent a sinister edge by Katy Morison’s lighting that floods it with ominous blues followed by Armageddon-evoking oranges.
Within the easily recognisable set-up of Arts graduates being told to ‘get a proper job’ and elitist prigs rising rapidly through the ranks whilst those who reject conventionality end up outcast, there is a real terror. And its one that feels so palpable it doesn’t need to be augmented by dystopian fantasy elements. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “There’s no such thing as paranoia.”
Escape The Scaffold is on in Cardiff until 6th May 2017. Click here for more details.