Dot’s family life is a mess. She feels marginalised, ignored by her parents. But unlike most teenagers, she’s come up with a plan – an experiment with F=ma. She’s going to try blowing her dad out of the window of the dizzyingly high office in which he works and letting velocity take care of the rest. After all, once you’ve hit rock bottom, where can you go but up?
That’s the premise of Canadian playwright Daniel Macdonald’s professional UK debut. It’s an absurdist dissection of our fragile sense of self, shot through with some sharp lines and just enough mordant humour to see it through when the conceit is stretched until it squeaks. The play corrals the laws of physics into metaphor in a way that is both intriguing and confining.
Just as a science experiment is a controlled simulation of a hypothesis where a range of outcomes are possible, it’s never clear how much of what appears to be happening to Dot’s parents and friends is simply in her head. For most of the play, they are variables, with no inner life beyond what she grants them, as we watch them struggle through various surreal scenarios.
Director Blythe Stewart emphasises this with a set that is basically a giant blackboard, scrawled with equations. We’re inside Dot’s mind, as she turns people into symbols. It’s a novel, visually and conceptually imaginative take on teenage self-absorption and insecurity. After all, when else in our lives is the desire to make people add up so urgent – and so bound up with the realisation that they don’t?
There are inspired scenes of lunacy, such as Dot’s Dad (Nicholas Cass-Beggs) flailing, standing on a chair, as he tries to close a business deal before hitting the ground. Eventually, though, the play’s form unpicks itself as well as the psyche of its protagonist, working against itself to be less than theatrically satisfying. It gets stuck – determinedly and repeatedly restating its equation metaphors in ways that increasingly yank us out of the moment.
Velocity is full of pockets of black, chaotic wit too often circumscribed by the Big Idea that has triggered them. For the most part, the cast play beautifully to the heightened tenor of the piece. Sion Alun Davies particularly stands out as Dot’s awkward slacker friend, Zoo, who has a crush on her, and as a coruscating TV anchor who verbally flays Dot’s brittle mother (Helene Wilson) with a single, drawn-out ‘Laura’.
There’s also strong support from Waleed Akhtar as Dot’s dick-ish boyfriend Jee, who she enlists into her experiment, and Siu-See Hung, who brings excellent comic timing to her role as Ming, the sweetly innocent friend who Dot patronises and ultimately lets down through her misguided belief that she can control everyone and every outcome.
As Dot, Rosie Day’s North American accent sometimes slips and she swallows her lines occasionally. But she captures well both the power of a teenager exploring the capacities of her burgeoning adulthood and the mix of arrogance and vulnerability that comes with it. She sells Dot’s confusion and guilt as her actions harm those around her and leave her even more isolated.
Actions have consequences and you should be careful what you wish for – these are the fairly traditional messages beneath the play’s enjoyably crazed surface. A last act switch into suicide bomber-related seriousness doesn’t quite work in terms of tone; but even if this experiment isn’t a resounding success, it’s an often engrossing one.