There are few playwrights working in Britain today whose work is as slick and unsettling as James Fritz’s. Ross and Rachel, his searing one-woman play that made a splash at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, excoriated stereotypical sitcom relationships with gut-twisting fervour. His four-hander Four Minutes Twelve Seconds forensically examined the fallout from an online revenge porn video. The Fall, his piece for the National Youth Theatre’s sixtieth birthday, was a bold, brutal, and remarkably prescient thought experiment exploring the consequences of Britain’s ageing population.
Parliament Square was written in 2015, hastily scrabbled together in a few days before the Bruntwood Prize deadline. It went on to win a judge’s prize (I know, right?) and in Jude Christian’s production, transferring to the Bush after its premiere in Manchester, it proves again that Fritz has a real knack for needling societal analysis. His subject this time: political action, or, more specifically, the limits of our individual responsibility therein. It is, frankly, one massive guilt trip. If you’re the type of person who signed up to change.org but always deletes their emails (hello!), then this is the play for you.
Of Fritz’s previous works, it’s closest structurally to The Fall, proceeding in three distinct sections. The first, and best, sees Kat (Esther Smith) psyching herself up to do… something. We’re not sure what to begin with, but as the act develops, it becomes clear: she’s going to Parliament Square, and *spoiler alert* she’s going to set herself on fire, Saigon-style. Why? Fritz deliberately leaves her motive unspecified, but it’s basically because she’s had it up to here with this shitty, unjust world and wants to make a stand against it. Fuck yeah.
Fritz’s stroke of genius here is to give voice to Kat’s consciousness. Lois Chimimba (who evidently survived the ordeal of Common), dances around Kat from the off, countering her reluctance with conviction, urging her to forget her husband, her mother, and her daughter, and commit herself to something bigger. Their interaction is classic Fritz: sharp, elliptical, relentless. Things don’t quite go to plan for Kat, though, and the rest of the play explores the fallout from her botched bid for martyrdom, the second act focusing on her agonised (in more way than one) recovery, and the third flitting through the rest of her life, spiralling around a compelling central question: was it all for nothing?
If Parliament Square lacks the surgical precision of his earlier work, particularly in its somewhat scattergun, more naturalistic latter sections, it’s only because Fritz has dramatically widened his lens. He’s not dealing in specialised, graspable issues here, he’s firing shots at society in general, at its imperviousness, and at the common person’s unwillingness to stand up for what they believe in. He’s pointing directly at you, at me, at everyone who signs petitions and votes for Corbyn but would rather watch YouTube videos of Gordon Ramsay than actually get out and do something (hello again!). He’s observing the disparity between our words and our deeds, between our retweets and our riots. Kudos to him for being unafraid of BIG TALK.
And the play’s slight bagginess in the second and third acts is largely swept up by Christian’s production, which sprints forward on Fly Davis’ almost featureless set. There are some lovely touches: Kat’s journey to Parliament Square is a whirlwind of movement and voiceover, her principled bid for oblivion is realised in a thrilling blend of white-hot lighting and a shower of ashes, and her life thereafter plays out, tiny fragment after tiny fragment, with her and her family marooned on wooden stools, climbing ever higher onto their mountain of privilege as the world burns around them.
There’s a rack of smart performances, too. Smith is frantic and febrile as Kat, spending half the play bandaged up in orange swaddling. Chimimba is sprightly and steely as her iron-willed conscience. There’s fine work too from Damola Adelaja as her earnest, uncomprehending husband, and from Seraphina Beh as a young girl simultaneously haunted and inspired by Kat’s actions.
The most fascinating relationship, though, is that between Kat and her mother, the entirely plausible Joanne Howarth. It’s here that the crux of Fritz’s play can be found. Kat, desperate and distraught at the state of the world, is willing to sacrifice her life for others. Her mother would rather see a million strangers die screaming and hungry than see her daughter hurt. It’s this inter-generational conflict – this opposition of principles and personal wellbeing – that lies at the root of Parliament Square. And it’s what lends Fritz’s play, for all its flaws, such a timely vitality. Not bad for a play he dashed out in a couple of days.
Parliament Square is on at the Bush Theatre until January 6th. Book tickets here.