Reviews West End & Central Published 23 July 2018

Review: Pity at the Royal Court

12 July - 11 August 2018

Warning: this review explodes. Hannah Greenstreet grapples with Rory Mullarkey’s new play.

Hannah Greenstreet
Pity at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray.

Pity at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray.

‘Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.’

From ‘The Human Abstract’ by William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience

Just before the last scene of Sam Pritchard’s production of Pity by Rory Mullarkey, the ensemble stand in a line, facing forward, and sing Blake’s poem. The words are surprisingly emotive in the cast’s impassive delivery. The song’s not in the script but it provides a pretty vital gloss on the play. I think.

The review explodes

I don’t know what this play is about.

I don’t know whether I liked it.

I don’t know if that’s a problem.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to describe Pity, I’d say it was an absurd, amoral morality-play-cartoon-newsfeed mashup.

A character known only as Person (Abraham Popoola) introduces us to his town. A character known only as Daughter is having an argument with her father, a Professor. Professor gets struck by lightning. Person and Daughter decide to get married. Then the explosions start. And things start getting weird. Ice-creams fall from the sky and bounce on the stage. Warlords drive tanks (actual, mini tanks) around. An angel descends from the sky. A visiting celebrity gets eaten. Stuff happens.

The review explodes

Can I just say that this show has been marketed really well? I found out about Pity on Instagram, its neon-pink ice-cream van disrupting my friends’ holiday pictures. The world of the play is extended to meet the audience halfway. You can buy an ice-cream from an onstage ice-cream van. You can listen to the Fulham Brass Band. You get to go in through the stage door and walk across the AstroTurfed set. Like a very niche, theatregoers’ Disneyland.

Pity has a strong visual identity, not least because of Chloe Lamford’s visually enticing set, creating a cartoonish vibe through juxtaposition. However, some of the decisions across the production felt a bit random. Yes, onstage ice-cream is a great idea. But why ice-cream? Is it a metaphor for something? How can buying someone an ice-cream turn into a marriage proposal between two people who don’t even know each other’s names?

The review explodes

Was it Baudrillard who said something about us all living in a simulation? How in late capitalism representations no longer have any link to an external reality. Images pile up and pile up, not referring outwards, but only referencing themselves, particularly advertising. Something about Disneyland? And terrorism. About how violence enacts a return of the real?

The review explodes-

There are some excellent comic performances from the company. Helena Lymbery does an eerily good impression of Theresa May as a Prime Minister at a press conference, better equipped to answer a question about sandwiches than what she’s going to do about all the explosions that keep happening.  Francesca Mills lights up every scene she’s in, playing parts ranging from dogwalker to malicious co-worker who’s suffered a traumatic childhood. Siobhán McSweeney delivers an epic, tragic-comic monologue as Sal the Postwoman, continuing to do her job as her whole life explodes around her.

There’s a beautiful moment near the end when McSweeney, bivouacked with Person and Daughter, starts to list her favourite words: ‘Catafalque Eleemonsynary..Aquiver..Crestfallen”¦’. Some seem potentially significant, some not. Inviting a connection, reaching out. Scattering words into a void. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

The review explodes

For a play called Pity, characters exhibit a surprising lack of pity. People keep dying. And standing up. And dying again. The brass band plays a funeral march each time. In an extended section, two armies kill each other repeatedly to disco beats, each claiming ‘Victory!’, beneath a neon-sign promising ‘Atrocities’.

Maybe Pity is saying that there is such a deluge of suffering in the world that we’ve become anaesthetised to feeling. Maybe it’s saying that you can get used to anything, even living in a war zone. It becomes a new normal that things will just explode. The absurd becomes the banal. Maybe it’s a reflection on how we consume atrocities through social media – hot takes on world news nestling between a video of a lizard riding a skateboard and an advert for a theatre production.

Pity could have been saying all of these things, or some of these things, or none of these things. Maybe I’m projecting because I want it to have a MEANING or to be symbolic, or for things to happen for a reason. I wanted a bit of a clearer steer on what exactly it was saying, if it was saying anything. Without a sense of reality beyond the theatre, what’s left are ice-cream and pyrotechnics.

Pity is on until 11 August 2018 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details. 


Hannah Greenstreet

Hannah is a writer, academic and theatre critic. She is London Reviews co-Editor for Exeunt, with a focus on fringe and Off-West End theatre. She has a PhD in contemporary feminist theatre and form from the University of Oxford and is now a lecturer at the University of Liverpool. She is also a playwright and has worked with Camden People's Theatre, Soho Writers' Lab, the North Wall Arts Centre, and Menagerie Theatre Company.

Review: Pity at the Royal Court Show Info

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Written by Rory Mullarkey

Cast includes Paul Bentall, Sophia Di Martino, Sandy Grierson, Helena Lymbery, Siobhán McSweeney, Francesca Mills, Abraham Popoola, Paul G Raymond, Dorian Simpson



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