Karl Marx once wrote “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, on the contrary, a very complex thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” This was the launch-pad for Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, yet The Boy on the Swing takes a different approach, dispensing with the niceties, taking the theology to heart, and putting a lost boy at the heart of the fetish.
Earl has called a number from a piece of paper he found on the ground. It is answered by a sales operator (played with a sly mixture of disingenuousness and menace by Nick Blood), and so begins his travels into the corporate underbelly of heaven, meeting managers and middle managers, and finally coming face to face with the boss man – God himself.
While Marx spotted the way that relations between commodities replace those between humans, even he couldn’t imagine how pervasive “service culture” would become; how the lines between the personal and consumer modes of address would become blurred on every smoothie bottle and in every computer store. How long we would spend on the phone, accidentally mashing buttons, spelling out our postal address with received pronunciation, only to be chastised as mumbling grunts by a variety of disembodied people who share the same supercilious smirk and robotic patience. For The Boy on a Swing hell is not other people, it’s smug recordings of people. This is Kafka in the call centre, Pinter in the postal depot – opaque, torturous, and funny.
At the centre Earl, played by a doughily quiescent Michael Shelford, is buffeted by the tides of customer service. His desire for completion, to fill the hole and commune with the supernatural property of the commodity, is constantly mitigated by his passive sense of the proper consumer. His gives his credit card because it is expected, he goes along with everything, including his own physical torture, because it’s part of the process. His marginal curiosity is routinely eclipsed by his queasy obedience. This is the painful, confused, experience of giving your details under the half-thinking duress of the clipboard – God is in the credit card details.
When face to face to face with God, Earl doesn’t quite find what he expects, even though he expects very little and isn’t quite sure what that is. Fred Pearson does a solid job conveying this Being, and His revealed nature is a neat if not entirely novel twist, prefigured by Robert Anton Wilson amongst others. The issue is muddied a bit by the critiques of Christianity, and their metaphysical maps delivered by Peter Bourke as the saturnine and commanding boss – although the absence of the ethical component of Christianity is compelling throughout. Another sharp and worthy turn is provided by Will Barton as the sadistic middle manager, who plays games of abstraction, culminating in the dullest and most petty mindfuck going, regional office tyranny, David Brent with malice aforethought.
Joe Harbot’s script burns a very precise humorous fuse, with a keen ear for absurd repetition and the comic reveal, despite never quite going off with a bang. It plots its Pinteresque path with solid studiousness, and is frankly masterful when it comes to fleshing out the banal. Jack Knowles’ lighting design makes a bold move with penetrating and uniform strip-lighting, which puts a lot of pressure on the script and actors, but cleverly plays on the grey anonymity of the Arcola 2’s functional space.
In She’s an Angel, the band They Might Be Giants sang about this very situation. “Gonna ask for my admission / Gonna speak to the man in charge / The secretary says he’s on another line, Can I hold for a long, long time?” If Earl’s experience is anything to go by, on-hold purgatory is something to be thankful for.