“Just” by Ali Smith

at C Eca, Wednesday 15th August 2012

A trademark of the absurdist genre is that the play will often end up where it begun, demonstrating the cyclical nature of society and the way in which we never learn (“First as tragedy, second as farce” and all that jazz). Just, a 2005 play by Ali Smith, unsurprisingly and understandably does the same thing, showing a Britain with a broken justice system based on middle class prejudice and repeating the first few moments at the end of the play. In Bablake Seekers’ production, however, we can see the ending coming from the start and some poor performances means no drama is found in the piece.

Just bears some resemblance to many other absurdist plays, specifically Albee’s Zoo Story, but Smith fails to bring the genre into the twenty-first century other than using the word “Waitrose” a few times. The set-up is a recognisable one; a woman comes across a dead man, and is accused of being guilty by a dumb policeman. The townspeople and local ‘vigilante’ Mrs Wright (gettit?) then begin a witch-hunt, which leads to her demise.

The British elements of the play are well explored; a group of citizens who think and speak only as a collective, a policeman with no cultural awareness and a focus on maps and buses ground this play firmly in middle England. Unfortunately, Smith then tries to be too clever by adding in elements of metatheatricality and references about a “really bad play” (ironic), which are fruitless and confused.

The cast, directed by John Pease, leave much to be desired. If the performances were knowingly bad, then perhaps the piece would make more sense, but instead they are wooden, clearly reaching for something more which never materialises. Intonation is all over the place, and supporting cast members look out towards the audience too frequently. Just because this is a “bad play” doesn’t mean it needs to be a ‘bad production’.

Perhaps there aren’t any better ways of creating the final moments, but being able to see the plate into which the umbrella is thrust throughout the play diminishes any kind of surprise somewhat. The whole play can then be discerned within the first five minutes, making the next forty unnecessary. With some more nuanced direction, Just could say some genuinely interesting things about the justice system whilst drawing a few laughs, but instead it’s a production which consistently tries too hard and is let down by a series of mediocre performances.

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