Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review: 'The End of History' at St Giles-in-the-Fields, 7th June 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

For a person of normal economic means, choosing to live in London is like selecting 'hard mode' in a videogame. Here life is fast, brutal, competitive and overdraft drainingly expensive. Every day brings news stories about fresh nightmares, whether it be skyrocketing crime rates, housing prices beyond the ken of mortal men and women, updates on precisely how poisoned the air is, or the gradual corporatisation of the city and the squeezing out of the general public.

And yet I wouldn't live anywhere else. London is where stuff happens, and that simple fact makes it worth spending your life in a place where you have to constantly fight to keep your head above water or risk being sucked under and spat out into some grey life in a dreary nowheresville. 

Marcelo Dos Santos' The End of History is this process, showing us two Londoners finding themselves "face to face on the worst day of their lives". They are Wendy (Sarah Malin), a middle-aged artist turned charity worker who finds herself homeless and Paul (Chris Polick), a confident gay man working in property who spends a morning dealing with some cataclysmically bad news. 

They meet inside St Giles-in-the-Field church in Soho, which is a fascinating deep slice of London history. Founded in 1101 and given a mission to care for London's lepers, it has continued to care for the less fortunate ever since. The proceeding 917 years have been busy, with the church functioning as a last stop for those about to executed at Tyburn gallows, the burial site of London's first (of many) plague victims, in the middle of the famous St Giles rookery of the 18th and 19th centuries, and now dwarfed by steel and aluminium skyscrapers, with the nursery-school-cute Google HQ just over the road.

Placing yourself within the continuum of London history is a dizzying experience. If you know where to look you can walk down a pavement constructed by the Romans and even apparently innocuous street furniture can be something that has survived a couple of hundred years of history. Despite this, the city is in constant flux, with new towers sprouting like weeds. The End of History understands that all this can lead to a loneliness, that humanity can seem in very short supply in London.

This particularly London headache is percolated through Wendy and Paul's stories - though they occupy the opposite ends of the social spectrum their symptoms spring from the same psychogeographical condition. Each explains their place within the city, with Wendy a native Londoner whose Mum lived in a new long-demolished house in Soho and feels like she intrinsically belongs here, while Paul is proud of his decision to 'choose' London and hurl himself into its style and speed.

After just over an hour in their company we know them pretty well. Though they don't directly interact until the final scenes, we understand them as representing two very different tribes of Londoners: the haves and the have-nots. As they're fleshed out through monologues, songs and fourth-wall bustin' asides their complexities become apparent and the social labels we've put on them dissolve. By the time the curtain falls there's a sense of London community that's formed between the characters, the audience and the creative team, the play having nailed down a particular urban ennui that binds us together.

All that is done through multiple lyrical and performative flourishes that mean there's never a dull moment. I particularly liked how the songs weren't showy vocal displays, the occasional off-note making them seem that much more honest ( all boosted by the church's great acoustics). Dos Santos also effectively switches gears between comedy and tragedy, sometimes within the same line.

Malin and Polick are similarly great, balancing their character's attractive and ugly features effectively. A decent amount of the action takes place very close to the audience - I got lucky and during a pivotal moment in the climax the pair were pretty much sat next to me, the closeness of their performances really cranking up the complexity. Perhaps the only fly I can pick at in this ointment is that Malin's Wendy continually complains about her middle-aged spread - given Malin looks fit and healthy it doesn't quite jibe.

But hey, that's a really teeny fly and that's a hell of a lot of top-class ointment. The End of History feels like a play tailored to my sensibilities - combining an intelligent analysis of urban living, understanding life in London in a historical context and smart and imaginative staging. This is my kinda theatre.

The End of History is at St Giles-in-the-Fields until 23rd June. Tickets here.

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