Every now and then, you go to see something entirely new, and are absolutely blown away by it.
This was the experience by our little group at the debut performance of Before the World Ends, a new science fiction play by Cerys Evans. Performed by Cerys's own Open Handed Theatre Company at The Actors in Brighton, in a tiny and intimate performance space, as part of FemFest 2023, Before the World Ends is a very different creation to Cerys's previous show, A Trans Fairytale. Full disclosure: Cerys is a good friend of mine, but I don't give good reviews to things I don't rate, even when I like the person who wrote them (I just hide and try not to make eye contact and try to think of excuse for next time). I knew Before the World Ends would be good, but I wasn't prepared for just how good.
With a cast of only six, performing nine roles, it's a very tight production, made with minimal set dressing and props, relying on the talents of the actors and some immersive sound and light design to do the script justice. Realising a world through so little visual material is tough, especially when you're setting the entire thing in the future, but the production handles it with ease.
The story is set in two main time zones: 2027 and 3027. Our focus in the further future is Nicola (Sophie Bloor), trying to work her way up the ladder at a museum of ancient history - specifically the 21st century, a time period that just doesn't draw in the crowds anymore. When she discovers an archaic phone that can somehow communicate through time, she is accidentally connected to Barry (Sam Gibbons), living a thousand years earlier and blissfully unaware that his new phone buddy is interested in more than market research.
Nicola can't help but try to learn from Barry. Not the specifics of the events at the close of 2027 - in spite of a spotty historical record, there seems to be no confusion of the important events - but just how people living then could close their eyes to the devastation around them. As Nicola connects with Barry, she comes to question whether the people of the 21st century were really as selfish and blind as they're believed to be, or whether there is something more to it. Surely they can't be all that different?
I hate when sf material is self-consciously justified as being "a drama first," but that's a very apt way to describe this play, which balances the brutality and heartache of mundane life with futuristic speculation. Nicola's personal and professional life could just as easily be taking place today, and while in some science fiction that would be a weakness, here it reinforces the idea that people are just people, doing the best they can wherever and whenever they live. Nicolas has to contend with an abusive partner and an unimpressed boss, all the while trying to balance her new cross-temporal friendship. For his part, Barry has to struggle with an elderly, disabled mother, as well as the unending "one thing after another" of 21st century life that makes the plight of the wider world seem so far away.
The play deals primarily with climate change and collective responsibility, but also touches on domestic violence, bereavement, the ups and downs of technological progress and cultural misunderstandings, and very briefly touches on gender identity. If there's one complaint, it's that in it's ninety minute runtime there isn't room to explore all of these in depth, and the story could be greatly expanded to a full length play or film, or even beyond to a television series. As it stands, though, it's an extremely focused story.
If this all sounds heavy going, then fear not: Before the World Ends is also frequently hilarious. The main events are given context by Patrick McHugh's brilliant museum guide, who gives poignant and often ridiculous notes to 21st century events and artifacts. McHugh is one of the actors playing dual roles, along with Madeleine Hawkey and Aurea Williamson. Plays with limited casts often struggle with this, but here each actor makes their characters completely distinct. Everyone is excellent, of course, but I feel particular praise must go to Bloor and Gibbons in their lead performances, and Sokratis Kyria for his terrifying turn as Nicola's partner.
As events in 2027 deteriorate around Barry, and the aftereffects are felt in 3027 and even beyond, the story turns bleak. Ultimately, though, it's a hopeful story, showing us how we can make a difference, even if it's only a small one, and that understanding each other is perhaps the most important thing of all.
Sadly, this was a one-off performance for now, but Cerys has plans for future performances. To the future.
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