Two short plays about the end of the world might not sound like the most cheerful of experiences, but Stuart Bowden’s work wins you over with its surreal humour and lo-fi whimsy. Both of these seemingly slight pieces manage, in their own way, to be laugh out loud funny and heartbreakingly poignant.
The World Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us is set in an unhappy future where self-announced space explorer Avian sees the ills of mankind as a reflection of the fact the Earth itself is lonely. He sets out to remedy this by finding a friendly planet and towing it into our galaxy. Since loneliness is also the solo spaceman’s worst enemy, first he must train himself to withstand it, by abandoning the cities and going to live in the desert. But, as he discovers, life – and love – has a way of seeking you out, no matter how far you run.
Out of what might sound like a fairly silly story, Bowden weaves an engaging tale, using nothing more than a handful of crates and a couple of musical instruments to pull us in to his deftly crafted world, ably switching between four different roles. The smart script is well married to Bowden’s affable, slightly bumbling persona, which disguises an adept, subtle use of physical comedy. There are occasional moments of heavy handedness – his spaceship is called The Story, and people are continually being invited into or out of it or getting lost inside it – but overall this is a funny, melancholic meditation on love and loneliness.
The second, and more recent of the pieces, She Was Probably Not a Robot, is initially bleaker still. It’s set in the aftermath of the apocalypse, and Bowden’s lone survivor spends the first few minutes standing on a bare stage, merrily telling members of the audience how they met their deaths. It’s darker, funnier and faster paced, as the lycra-clad, slacker protagonist seeks to avoid destruction, hurling himself around the auditorium on an inflatable mattress – a genuinely precarious endeavour in the intimate confines of a studio theatre.
Its deliciously bleak humour once again relies heavily on Bowden’s likeability, but luckily he’s charismatic enough to carry it (you can’t imagine many performers telling a story about putting their dead girlfriend’s head on a stick and taking it for a walk, and managing to make it both hilarious and actually quite romantic). But this, too, is a weightier tale than it at first seems; as the story progresses, we see that even the end of the world has not stripped away the survivor’s delusions, as he fetishizes the girlfriend who had left him and the relationship he never, in fact, really had. The apocalypse, ironically, has let him create the life he always wanted and freed him from the inconvenience of everyday existence: dead girlfriends can’t leave you, dead dogs can’t run away.
So when an alien who has been painstakingly constructing a replacement planet (Bowden with a silver cardboard box on his head, entertainingly dotty) offers him a second chance, which he ruthlessly snatches (happily murdering his doppelganger so he can take his place) you wonder if his new life is as much an artificial construct as the world he lives it out on.
Though both shows work as standalone pieces – and have been performed separately – together their cumulative charm is considerable. If you’re going to be stranded at the end of the world, you couldn’t wish for better company.