This debut production by polished new company End of Moving Walkway in a leafy corner of West London felt like something you might experience at a far bigger venue, on a good day. In fact, the cramped wooden flip-seat stalls – presumably reclaimed from some big old theatre before it was knocked down or converted into flats – made the auditorium feel like a grand West End theatre in miniature, rather than a mere fringe space. I applaud the company's excellent casting decisions (apparently, over 1,500 actors auditioned for the nine paid roles available) and high quality production values.
So what of the play itself? American playwright-of-the-moment Will Eno's 2007 piece portrays five human stories, one after the other, by people who are suffering, to varying degrees, unique existential crises. The action is all in the characters' words, their reflections on their troubled lives and life generally, as well as where they are headed and where it all might end. Dark stuff indeed. Eno's style is to create word-landscapes, verbal panoramas that capture the audience's imagination, while word-play – repetition, rhyme, puns – and jokes lighten the mood, although black humour is trowelled on in bucketloads too.
First up is seasoned actor Jonathan Kemp as Coach, the stand-out performance of the night. Coach, we infer from his monologue (he is delivering a press conference to a rowdy room of hacks), manages a sports team and had a bad year. A "hell" of a year, actually. The din of press chatter before and after his speech contrasts piercingly with Kemp's quiet, perfectly cadenced delivery as he agonises over why his life is wasting away. "The answer is: I don't know," he concludes. "I don't know, in general. And in particular, in particular."
Eno's technique here reminded me of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. The other monologue in Oh, the Humanity is also expertly acted, but the writing isn't quite as good. Claire Lichie plays the Spokeswoman for an airline that just lost a plane, killing all on board. Her job is to put a positive PR spin on the tragedy and explain to relatives and the public what happened, even though she doesn't yet know herself. Amusingly sinister, gripping drama, but the satire on greedy and incompetent corporations is at times a touch too obvious. Her meditation on death, however, is wickedly on the money: like the crash victims, "we're all going there" but "at different speeds."
The other stories involve a single guy and single girl recording a video each about themselves for a dating agency; two photographers who explain the contents of an old, problematic war photo they want to show us but have mislaid; and an absurd, bickering couple on their way in a broken-down car to a funeral or christening (they can't remember which).
Taken together, these confessional tales can be hard to stomach if you're of a stiff-upper-lip, 'keep calm and carry on' disposition (and are ultimately, after all, about 'me, me, me'). But they are undeniably absorbing case studies, seemingly selected at random, about some of the anxieties and foibles attached to being human.