(A rather wordy review of "
** Note: I've tried to avoid spoilers but if you are going to see it I recommend not reading this until afterwards!**
"If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet" is an extraordinary play. Somehow it manages to be both very much of this moment and peculiarly British, and yet universal. You could set it in New York and it wouldn't cease to be relevant, although the particular self-persecution did strike me as rather English, not to mention the mini moral panic about tomatoes flown in from Spain and purchased at Tesco, Evil Tesco of all places! I have to say I'm glad they didn't take the easy way out and Americanize it (looking at you,
). At its heart, the play is about family, but also, improbably, manages to be about humanity as a whole. The story puts us on board the Planet Earth as The Titanic - a theme alluded to more than once - and as the water levels rise both metaphorically and physically (at one point, after a critical bursting point - literally - the stage is awash with water and the last few scenes are played with the actors wading ankle-deep around submerged furniture) we watch as each character hits their own personal iceberg and has to change course one way or the other. The underlying question is whether we collectively, as "homo sapiens", can do the same.
George* (Brian F O'Byrne), an organic-vegetable-growing, safety-vest-wearing, Guardian-reading professor opens the play with a stuttering, preachy monologue. He's writing a book (referred to as a "bible", maybe alluding to his fanatical devotion to its contents) about "the carbon footprints of everything", a book described later in the play as "so depressing - we're all doomed". As becomes evident, George is well-meaning - if slightly embarrassing, saying Dad Things like "Be there or be square" and discussing his daughter's dates over that British national dish: Chicken Tikka Masala. But he's so intent on saving the world that he doesn't notice his family - brittle wife Fiona (Michelle Gomez, who Brits might recognise from Green Wing), overweight and struggling daughter Anna (Annie Funke) and troubled-geezer-with-a-heart-of-gold brother Terry (Jake Gyllenhaal) - falling apart.
If this all sounds incredibly dismal or like an Eastenders script, it really isn't. I know what I'm going to write about below sounds oh-so-po-faced-and-serious, but each fragile relationship, each set change, each situation is handled with skill and humor without being trite. At one point we hear very faint echoes of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" behind an intense conversation in a diner, and later we hear the elevator muzak version of it playing in an Indian restaurant (I laughed out loud at that one. Not to mention muzak is probably a very appropriate way to hear that particular ballad. But I digress). These little allusions and echoes occur often - in the opening scene George's overweight daughter Anna stems a nosebleed resulting from a headbutt (or, as Terry puts it, "What? You fucking NUTTED her?") as her concerned mother/schoolteacher Fiona looks on, later we see Terry in a comically similar situation.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Terry, who returns from his vague and mysterious travels, presumably attempting to outrun his somewhat troubled past, and lopes into the family home in Adidas shell-suit, slicked back hair and baggy jeans, all rangy physicality and blackly comic one-liners. (His very convincing English accent, if triangulated, places Terry somewhere between Shoreditch High Street,
, and Ricky Gervais. It's flawless and hilarious.) His body language swings between self-protective and endearingly casual as he breaks apart the tightly-strung lives of a pre-occupied family and forces them to re-evaluate what is important. Jake masters the comic timing and Terry's endearing likeability and undermines it with flashes of anger, drunkenness and helplessness as Fiona accuses him of being just a "scared little boy".
Terry's presence is a final catalyst for troubled, bullied, overweight niece Anna, and their slightly uneasy, sometimes awkward, yet affectionate relationship provides the heart of the play. Anna's dramatic breakdown after a disastrous date (at the local Wetherspoon's, no less - a reference to a ubiquitous chain of British pubs which I wondered if anyone who hadn't been subjected to them in the UK would truly appreciate) ends up throwing all the tensions between George, Terry and Fiona into sharp relief, and leaves Anna drowning in plain sight. Fiona, distracted by struggles with her elderly mother and George's manic preoccupation, loses sight of how to help her daughter. "She means the world to me," Fiona laments, and this is where we see Terry's point that "saving the world" might not be so far removed from saving the family.
But the moments of laugh-out-loud humour do give us hope for the family - the scenes where Terry convinces George to smoke marijuana out a window as he rambles on about the carbon footprint of a single latte, Anna's face as she realises Terry has no idea how to make his peace-offering pie and has to help while Terry resorts to cursing Jamie Oliver, Fiona's snide remarks to Anna about George's manifesto ("Did dad ever talk to you about his book?" asks Anna. "Only all the bloody time," replies Fiona darkly) show there's real love between them and although their histories are only hinted at we begin to understand their motivations.
The cleverly designed set (which sadly I wasn't allowed to photograph) is as much a character as the family members. The pile of furniture and clothing strewn about the stage is manipulated by the actors, as the pile becomes more and more fragmented and unravelled, so do the family's lives. At times the messiness of the set feels a bit claustrophobic, but it's kind of appropriate given the family's increasing frustration.
As the cast discards entire chunks of the set (sometimes violently!) to float in a stagnant pool in front of the stage, the accumulating detritus begins to weigh on us like the emotional baggage of each character and the looming threat of environmental disaster. (There's no intermission, and while I joked I would have liked a glass of wine at "half time", I think that would have broken this steadily increasing pressure). Water is both an oppressor and a catharsis throughout the play - always present both physically and between the lines. "Are you happier by the sea?" Anna asks Terry after he has moved south, before finally succumbing to her pain (trying not to spoil what happens here, but her misery is represented by floodgates literally opening and engulfing the entire stage in water, a fate only Terry manages to avoid).
"Are we worth saving if we're not prepared to change?" wonders George. He's talking about Planet Earth, but he could also be talking about himself. "It's not what needs to be done, it's how we convince people to do it," he declares.
I think my only philosophical quibble with the environmental themes in the play was the idea that these two things might be mutually exclusive - that we need to "freeze in the dark", as we used to call it when I worked at Greenpeace - the idea that we must deny ourselves if we are to avoid disaster. Fiona despairs at George's obsession, when he berates her for buying tinned pineapple from Tesco or goes on about Newsnight interviewing him in the most inappropriate of situations. I think there's a more hopeful way to look at change, a better way to convince people.Maybe I focused on this angle a lot because of my own history - I remember once Greenpeace rang my mum asking for a donation and she replied "You already have my daughter!", perhaps a sentiment Fiona could relate to. Then again, George isn't so good with hope. Although he dedicates his book to Fiona and Anna, neither find it particularly hopeful, even though it seems that in his own way he's trying to save them as well as the planet.
In the end, we're not sure if any of them have mastered their struggles yet, but we feel like the characters have all weathered some kind of storm and come out the better for it - or at least, they're not drowning but waving.
In short, I'm still smiling and thinking about it, I forgot how good live theatre can be. Did I overthink this? Probably. I do that. Anyway, I avoided the throngs of Gyllenhaal fans outside in favour of a dram of whiskey in the local Scottish pub, but I've booked tickets to go and see it again next week :)
*Interestingly, in my notes from the play I had scribbed down "George Monbiot?", and wondered if the character of George was named after him. And I just read an interview with the playwright who indeed was inspired by one of my favourite environmentalists - and a Guardian journalist to boot!