Four young people in their early twenties, who’ve not long left university, spend all their time getting drunk and stoned. Like art school in the Seventies – but with laptops. Or jump a decade, and it could be Rik Mayall and the others in an episode of ‘The Young Ones’ . . .
It soon became apparent, though, that Chance Bliss Dini has written something much more relevant. ‘Half Baked’ is a very perceptive play about the state of contemporary Britain. Dini gives us a perspective on the economy and the current state of higher education, as well as on the British class system. It could even be seen to be partly about Brexit.
But first and foremost it’s funny. We could see that straight away as we entered the Rialto performance space, and there on the black stage were the four characters – three slumped on a big soft settee and one crashed out on the floor in front of them. The settee covered in a blue material, patterned in a vaguely psychedelic way like some throwback to the Sixties, and the floor littered with cartons, papers and bottles – but what riveted our attention was the middle girl on the settee, or more exactly not her as much as her orange tiger-striped onesie. Complete with tail.
Oh. My. God.
She’s Elly; she dropped out of university “four times” and now she’s doing nothing. At this moment, though, she’s simply very, very hungover. As is Sky, who’s on the settee next to her. Sky did actually get her degree, but obviously found the experience traumatic – when Tweak mentions that in his case he’d “got a 2.1”, Sky shudders – “Don’t ever say ‘dissertation’ to a recent graduate”.
Ah, Tweak. Tweak’s tall and thin, and he’s actually got a … job. It’s the kind of job that just involves stacking shelves, though, and right now Tweak’s so fuckin’ wasted that he’s going to call in sick. Again. Sod it!
The obvious leader of the group is Frankie. He’s a recent graduate too, like the others, and he seems to have the most charisma; but he’s got absolutely no direction to his life apart from occasional labouring jobs that give him enough money to get drunk and stoned. He’s the one who organises the trip to the local convenience store to get rolls (and Rizlas) for them all, and just now he’s come up with a plan to live off-grid in a caravan.
So far, great material for a sitcom. Lots of funny lines about the trials of being constantly drunk and having no money, and smoking weed of course. There’s an hysterical episode, where the four are having an incredibly stoned conversation, that rang very, very true. Finally, though, what an indictment of Britain today! These are obviously highly intelligent young people, but the economy and the educational system have left them completely demotivated, with no sense at all of a constructive future, and only some zero-hours McJob to look forward to. As Bob Dylan put it – ‘Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift’
But ‘Half Baked’ is about class, too. Nobody actually uses the word ‘Trustafarian’, but it’s obvious that Elly comes from a well-off family. She can’t make some gig with the others because she has to “go horse riding”. After four unfinished courses, she’s now toying with the idea of doing a dance degree. Unlike the others, Mummy and Daddy will surely support Elly while she keeps on trying new things.
‘Half Baked’ is very much an ensemble piece, and Ellie Warboys as Elly, Olivia Sewell as Sky, Louis Heriz-Smith as Tweak and Sam Razvi as Frankie brought the play to life. Razvi, especially, gave a bravura performance as Frankie: by turns hectoring, self-pitying, ironic and stoned out of his skull.
And so to Brexit. Analysts of this unfolding disaster point to two interesting ways of dividing up British society. One talks about the ‘Aspirational’ as opposed to the ‘Left Behind’; while the second classifies us as ‘Citizens of Anywhere’ as opposed to ‘Citizens of Somewhere’. In both analyses; the first category of people oppose Brexit, as they have an outward-looking, international perspective on the world, and the confidence that their own skills and abilities will let them prosper in any location. The second category demand Brexit – they are much more rooted, in a sense of belonging to a particular place. They are very proud of their identity, both national and local, and they are wary of ‘foreigners’ taking away their culture and their jobs.
The author has used these divisions to produce the narrative arc of her play. Tweak has been offered a ‘proper’ job, an internship with a London company that could kick-start his career. But it would mean leaving the place where he grew up, and abandoning plans to share the caravan with Frankie – how will Tweak bring himself to betray his friend?
Because Frankie, despite being the group’s supposed ‘leader’, is terrified of leaving the small town where they live, and equally opposed to taking on the responsibilities of a proper job. The caravan project is the only future he can currently envisage, and now that’s going to be lost.
But Frankie’s about to be betrayed by another friend. He’s in a vague sort of ‘relationship’ with Sky – no commitments or plans for the future, of course – but she turns out to be a ‘Citizen of Anywhere’. Sky’s twenty-three, with a degree, and she wants to see more of the world. She’s going to go off back-packing, leaving the claustrophobic embraces of Frankie far behind – at least for a while. Olivia Sewell made a beautiful job of Sky gradually widening her horizons. Not just the words – the actor stretched somehow, seeming to grow taller as her plans developed.
There were a few problems in audibility: Heriz-Smith tending to mumble sometimes, and all of the cast occasionally delivered their lines too fast. It’s a difficult balance between producing realistic speech and slowing it down sufficiently that the audience can take it in. Overall, though, the four actors brought Dini’s characters to life – I believed in them as living, breathing people. I cared about what would become of them.
Chance Bliss Dini directed the play, as well as having written it. Sometimes a writer can be too close to their creation to produce it effectively, but that certainly wasn’t the case with ‘Half Baked’. She achieved fluid movement and effective staging of her actors, allowing the characters to become real for us. What starts out as marks on a sheet of paper becomes an episode of life, taking place in front of our eyes. Isn’t that the true magic of theatre?
In conversation afterwards, I learned that this is Dini’s first written play. ‘Half Baked’ is certainly a highly recommended production, she’s managed to combine individual people’s stories with a clear-sighted vision of contemporary Britain. A remarkable achievement – I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.