Imagine it’s three minutes to midnight before a nuclear winter. And that’s slipped on January 26th this year to two-and-a-half. Jonathan Williamson’s created a laconic take on the old 1970s-80s nuclear holocaust warnings directed by Thomas Everchild under the auspices of TBC Audio and Simon Moorhead’s production – who also supply the radio studio set with some fine lighting effects.
Protect and Survive re-imagines the period re-enacted in a 2017 Brighton studio with actors recreating the feel and scare of the times – including digitalized re-tracings we’re told on old C90 tape and back again which produces the acronym DAD. It’s almost nostalgic, then a little bit not. The scenario as presented before arrival suggests real events take over. That doesn’t happen which is a pity.
St Andrews is a generous venue, and the set’s convincingly constructed. Sound engineer Ashley (Amy Sutton) encourages the audience to produce sound effects of screams and cries of ‘food’ and ‘give us some food’ recording all in bytes before racing off to the mixing cabin. It’s an excellent participation gambit and ought to be repeated. Throughout this, Sutton’s acting as the unflappable precise laid-back sound engineer who sees everything is one of the production’s chief delights.
Six actors re-create… actors and managers. Pippa Hammond’s Director Cat is like Sutton a perfectly-cast, cast-ingot actor, managing actor panic, sponsorship crises and sexual intrigue with charismatic Theo whom she’s addicted to though married to off-stage Charles. Her exchanges with Ashley are a high-point of naturalistic dialogue and wit.
Ashley’s a quietly loyal enabler, often stingingly accurate in assessing everyone including a light-touch critique of Cat’s fixation on Theo: she doesn’t trust him, hinting she’s discovered an inadvertent recording of their lovemaking. Given adults themes are highlighted I half-expected this to burst on us at an inopportune moment in the recording process. Perhaps it should. There’s an Ayckbournesque potential in this narrative that isn’t quite tapped.
Like Ashley a ‘creative’ Cat exudes quick-witted, sure-footed poise tip-toeing emotional holes and catty Saffron’s barbs aimed at everyone, particularly Julia and Peter and hints at Cat’s affair. Even Theo’s trips to the toilet (coke?) are spun as STD. Penny Scott-Andrews’s Saffron exudes an edgy nastiness contrasting with in-character vulnerability of a child-like order.
Tigger Blaize playing Julia portrays a less glamorous right-on type born of a Greenham Common mother. Despite Saffron’s attempts to suggest Peter might be her father (being an old CND type) Blaize creates a niche of jobbing actor with the inverse of Saffron’s pretensions.
Justin K Hayward’s previous life included being lance-carrier for Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet. ‘He never called for me again: too much competition.’ Theo-besotted Cat demotes Peter from one role but leaves him as old-style BBC announcer. His deadpan punctuations under spectral lighting renders him a kind of spectral visitor, studding the performance. Shadowy vulnerability is etched on his bow tie and formal garb.
Jack Kristiansen’s Theo promises well, though doesn’t get the opportunity to deliver the danger his character’s set up to. The plot envelope of jobbing actors creating a radio programme is an extremely promising one not fully realized here, given the six characters are well-delineated with actors well-equipped to portray them.
The various scenarios presented, progressive horrors facing dying and endangered survivors of nuclear fall-out, are well wrapped as Cat and Ashley co-ordinate, cajole and occasionally re-take scenes: a progressive falling-apart of humanity over several months, detailing physical decay, ending in death by septicemia, rape and delivery of a child on a women-led commune.
One highlight arrives as those very cries we enacted for the boom are fed together in a scene where the army captain (Theo) directs his men to fire tear gas canisters directly into the crowd killing some, to prevent their reaching army-hoarded food. They’re trampled. Superb as this scene is, especially in this generous acoustic, characters’ dialogue is lost. Overall, though, this conveys a densely informed, terrible topic in a potentially ideal format: the bustle of studio-acting politics. Such a non-preachy manner needs more narrative to bounce off. Alistair Beaton’s recent Fracked! subverts untreated info by guying it or edging into the mouths of characters from both sides who develop half-lives of their own. Williamson’s clearly inspired by similar instincts and needs to give himself permission.
On the opening night some technical issues only slightly delayed the performance. The ‘recording’ sign stayed stubbornly on throughout. Everchild knows his business and the whole piece moves seamlessly with no longeurs at all.
This is still a work-in-progress, needing more time to unfold – at least another ten-to-fifteen minutes – so characters’ subplot can breathe. The conclusion’s an aptly abrupt dismissal. The rest of the cast show their backs, as the dead, an unnerving bit of theatre business designed to occlude the baldness of the ending.
See this work for its outlined imagination, facts, most production values and acting. Just as nuclear bombs suck out the air from everywhere around it, this intriguing, often beautifully produced and certainly consummately-acted work just needs to breathe back some of that air.