Review – The End, Phone Box Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St. Peter’s Church, Northampton, 19th May 2016

The EndNot inappropriately, The End was the last of the Flash Festival plays I saw this year. Not only the end of my Flash experience – which had been thoroughly enjoyable – but also the end (probably) of everyone’s experience unless we all followed our instructions and made it to the safe zone. Confused? No need. Here’s the science bit: set in the very near future, the government released a vaccination to cure cancer; and though it was successful there was an unfortunate side effect – it killed 140,000 of the people who received it. I say killed; that’s not strictly true. The vaccine went on to cause rapid cell regeneration in the bodies, but the minds and the brains remained destroyed – yes, gentle reader, we have a zombie population half the size of Northampton.

But we, here in the church, are clean. We are healthy. We have undergone considerable scrutiny just to get inside the venue, with the gun-wielding Roach checking our bags (he made me unzip an empty compartment inside my bag, so glad he didn’t find anything suspicious) and the more gentlemanly Scruff doing a physical health check (he asked me if I had any marks on my arms, and was a little concerned at how long I took to answer, but I think I convinced him I was uninfected). Harper, the leader, is waiting for us at the end of the seats, with more questions and a frosty kind of welcome. You certainly feel unsettled, and even if you’re tempted to engage in a little giggle along the way, it doesn’t take long before Roach puts you back in your place with a gruff retort or a shove of his gun. This is not The Romper Room.

Phone Box castThe only structural problem with this play is that, if you are one of the first to take your seats, it takes a long time to get going because everyone behind you has to go through the comprehensive security check. It very much adds to a sense of occasion and/or fear; but, in the end, you are sitting around, basically waiting for something to happen – although it does give you an opportunity to share your experience with your fellow zombie survivors. Once it does all get going it’s extremely exciting and thought provoking. Harper has a perfect plan for us all to escape; transport is arranged, and the route double-checked. However, sadly, the driver upon whom we were all relying has died and so we’re left with fewer chances of getting to the safe area. And it’s a helluva long way away too. The first stage is that we have to walk to Birmingham. That’s a big ask.

We meet the fourth member of the group, Faith, whom I’m sure was only given that name so that they could use the terrific joke about losing faith (No! She’s here!) Undercurrents of resentment abound, as Roach doesn’t believe a woman can do the top job, and Scruff resents Roach’s attitude, and Harper fights to retain her superiority, and Faith is offering us biscuits. When it becomes clear that Faith has actually become infected herself, Roach is all for shooting her there and then. But Harper intercedes and we discover that Faith and Harper are more than just friends; nevertheless, Faith remains a health hazard to us all and will die anyway. We’re all expecting Roach to shoot her – but then Harper does it. As far as the overall survival of the group is concerned, it was the only safe thing to do (even though she was so very nice to everyone). The play ends with Roach dismissing us all from the church, hollering at us to leave in no uncertain language, and as we leave the church to rejoin the outside world, we reflect that there is no zombie apocalypse after all (well, not at the moment anyway) and that we’ve basically left the theatre without giving them a round of applause.

Phone BoxThe cast of four do a terrific job in keeping the tension and excitement up whilst still allowing for the injection of some humour, primarily through the delightful performance by Caroline Avis as the benign Faith who only wants to help and be supportive. I was really impressed by the no-nonsense attack and thinly disguised brutality of Daniel Gray’s Roach – Mr Gray really does do aggressive well. I was also very impressed by the performance by Connor McAvoy as Scruff; of all the cast I felt he was the one who most appreciated the situation we were all in and ran the gamut of all the appropriate emotions as our predicament worsened. It was a really intelligent performance; and he also provided a lot of the humour too. Matilda Hunt’s Harper was a naturally superior sort, every inch the queen of MI5, just about maintaining the authority she needed despite Roach’s Rottweiler tactics – another thoughtful and solid performance.

A memorable and disturbing piece. It’s hard to forget being chased out of a church by an intimidating maniac with gun telling you to f**k off, that really doesn’t happen every day. And Harper’s shooting of Faith with a deadly almost silent pistol was nerve-judderingly horrific. Now for that long walk to Birmingham – wish me luck.