Wittily written, ‘Terms and Conditions’ is a thought-provoking, angst-ridden play, which leaves one feeling unsurprisingly contemplative, one’s existential sensitivities firmly ablaze. This is of little surprise, since the writer of the play, Patrick Marmion, set out to write something that would explore and subvert the concept of ‘reality’. In an interview Director Patrick Marmion articulates his doubts over modern society’s seeming confidence in this idea of ‘reality’ – doubts which come across lucidly in the way the play examines ordinary, suburban life through the wanderings of the unconscious.
The play is set in the newly bought home of a young couple with two children. Whilst endeavoring to tackle the typically mundane suburban task of unblocking the toilet, Kat (wife and mother, played by Jennie Gruner) stumbles upon an old, repellent smelling man residing in her basement. ‘Liv,’ as he comes to be known, turns out to be a violinist of apparently Eastern European descent – though the specifics of his ethnic heritage are kept purposefully ambiguous throughout. With slightly questionable haste, the couple decides to allow this wandering stranger to continue living in their basement and integrate him into their family life. The play thence explores the somewhat fraught relationship built between the couple and this unconventional addition to their home, examining the pressures of suburban, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ life, with an at times quite sinister edge.
Played brilliantly by Mike Burnside, Liv’s heart-warming and child-like persona detracts little from the symbolic efficacy of his occupying the rejected, contentious space of ‘the other’ and personifying the unconscious projections of both Kat and Les. This ‘otherness’ is emphasized continually in the heated arguments the couple have over the seeming irreconcilability of ‘his’ culture with theirs. By constantly reiterating that ‘they’re not like us where he comes from… they do things differently there,’ whilst never specifying this elusive ‘other’ place, Marmion provocatively explores the ‘us and them’ trope that is dominant within postcolonial thinking. Within this suburban, nuclear family, the casualness with which misinformed cultural assumptions are embedded in everyday thinking is brought into sharp relief. These tense confrontations also have one wincing somewhat at the less desirable side of young, married life, with interruptions from the crying newborn only serving to heighten one’s sense of empathetic frustration.
The audience is often left to wonder as to whether Liv is indeed ‘real’ in the objective sense, or whether he represents some phantasmal construction that differentially reflects each family member’s inner thinking. It is this looming ambiguity that overhangs the entire play, which renders the quite simple plot so thought-provoking and compelling. If it was Marmion’s intention to destabilize the audience’s confidence in ‘reality’, he certainly does so with great efficacy. However, whilst grappling with a number of pretty heavy issues and blurring the lines between ‘unreality’ and ‘reality’ (which, I might add, is no mean feat), Marmion keeps the play engaging and light-hearted with a brilliantly witty and fast-moving script. It is expertly cast too, so that the humorous side of the play is in no way overshadowed by the seriousness of some of the issues raised, and the audience is kept laughing throughout. The couple’s best friends, ‘Liz’ (played by Victoria Walsh) and ‘Walter’ (played by Jermaine Dominique) initially appear a delightfully comical pair, slurring and booty-shaking their way through one of the preliminary acts, only to sober up and reveal a more complex, darker side thereafter.
Mike Burnside was, for me, the highlight of the evening – from his heavy-footed meandering across the stage, to his frequent grunts and sighs, his performance was unfaultable. This is not to say that the other cast-members were not of an equal caliber, very much in fitting with the theatre’s obviously successful aim to ‘nurture talent’, with the likes of Emily Watson having previous ‘cut their teeth’ on its small stage. Self-described as a ‘space where risks can be taken’, The White Bear appears the perfect location in which to house Marmion’s play. This small, fringe theatre, located two minutes from Kennington tube station, in the back room of an old pub, facilitates an immediate intimacy between the cast and audience, who are a mere breath away from one another. For a play that seeks to blur the lines of ‘reality’, what better way to start than by spatially blurring the lines between actor and spectator?
Running until the 1st December, with tickets priced at £15 for adults, £10 concessions, I thoroughly recommend heading to The White Bear to see this truly excellent play (and staying around for a drink or two at the pub at the front).