Friday, January 29, 2016

'Underground' at the Vault Festival, 28th January 2016

When I first arrived in London, sparkly eyed, bushy tailed and fresh faced, I thought of the the tube was impossibly romantic. The very names of stations were pregnant with possibility; after all who knew what wonders took place like at mysteriously named places like Seven Sisters, Temple or Elephant and Castle? 

On top of that is the pleasant, reassuring clunkiness of the thing; all snapping doors, robo-voiced announcements and that whoosh of ozone-tinged air as a train rushes out from the inky blackness beyond the platform.

A week of commuting on the Circle Line soon got rid of that sense of wonder; it's difficult summon that sense of metropolitan grandeur when you're desperately trying to maneuver your face out of a sweaty banker's armpit.

Isla van Tricht's Underground sets out to restore that mystery, exploring the tubeas a place hermetically sealed away from the outside world, where human relationships twist and warp, time stretches and the world becomes just a little softer.

Set in a faraway future where TFL have resolved their dispute with the drivers and the night tube is up and running, the play is set somewhere on the Northern Line near Kennington, where Claire (Bebe Sanders) and James (Michael Jinks) are returning from a reasonably successful online date.

Then the train judders to a halt. Minutes pass with no explanation, until an apologetic announcement that the train has broken down and maintenance staff are being dispatched. Claire and James are stuck underground, their only company each other and an obliviously snoozing fellow passenger (Adrian Wheeler). As minutes turn into hours, the two conversationally dance around one another, mutual attraction blooming. But the longer they stay here, the more surreal the tannoy announcements get. Just how long will they be trapped?

Modest, modern and perceptive, van Tricht displays a firm grasp of both contemporary relationships and the Greater London public transport network. As the play unfolds, the two pleasingly dovetail together. Underground's dating world is one of Tindr and Happn, each indispensible to the urban dater. Spotting someone you like the look of in a bar and striking up a conversation is a bit passe these days - far better to coolly sit in judgment behind your smartphone and swipe left and right.

Similarly, the tube network treats human beings as bytes to be efficiently shuffled down a series of pipes to their destinations. Once you press your Oyster card through the barrier, you become a blip on TFL's system, tracked around the network. The two systems share a preoccupation with cleanly digitally processing analogue humanity. So, by trapping a couple together in this system, Underground gently critiques the sleek ease of modern dating by creating a situation in which no-one can casually swipe someone into the abyss.

While this all rumbles away in the background, the foreground is taken up with a very well-written romance. From moment one, Wheeler and Sanders demonstrate an enviable romantic chemistry. Wheeler accentuates awkwardness and fake bravado, unsure of how much of himself to reveal, while Sanders hides behind a sarcastic and spikiness. Both characters are eminently likeable and believable - whether they're casually smoking outside a crowded bar or ravenously ripping each other's clothes off in an erotic muddle.

Frankly it's straightforwardly nice to see an on-stage romance that works. Mutual attraction is a difficult thing to convey in performance and writing without the billowing whiff of cheese, so full credit to all involved. 

Matters are helped by the smart decision to exploit the atmosphere in the Leake Street tunnels. We're ensconced underneath Waterloo station and the ceiling is periodically shaken by the doomy knocking of trains overhead. I've seen a lot of shows here and this can be distracting, but in Underground it creates a distinctly subterranean London Underground vibe that'd be hard to create anywhere else.

The only place things come a little unstuck are the more surreal segues. Sleep-deprived and disorientated, the tannoy announcements descend into a mix of free-wheeling poetry and snatches of overheard conversations. The sleeping man in the corner of the train proves to be an agitator of the fourth wall, adding a weird metafictional element to proceedings. I don't think Underground needs these distractions, at any rate, neither I nor my plus one could work out what they were trying to communicate.

At just an hour long, Underground is an eminently breezy experience, speckled with beautifully observed and played fragments of human interaction. It's got obvious heart, brains to back it up and captures that elusive, easily forgotten thrill of romance underground.

Swipe right.


Underground is at Vault Festival:

Performances: 27th - 31st January 2016
Wednesday - Sunday, 18.00, + Saturday matinee, 14.30

Tickets: £12
For full programme and ticket information, visit

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