Last year was a difficult time for the National’s Olivier theatre, with a run of less-than-brilliant productions that was enough for some to speculate it had lost its touch. A case in point was lacklustre modern fairytale Saint George and the Dragon written by Rory Mullarkey, a kind of Brexit pantomime for adults that was both silly and sanctimonious.
Not to be deterred, Mullarkey’s latest play, Pity, covers similar ground, presenting a primary-coloured slice-of-life in Small Town, England. Only this time his worst creative impulses are utterly off the leash, with the political satire breaking down into an absurdist rumination on the nature of humanity, complete with a disco murder-montage, graphic cannibalism and giant inflatables.
It’s like Monty Python directed by Ken Loach, except nowhere near as good as that sounds.
There’s a loose narrative, but it follows dream logic: a couple meet and within minutes they’re married. Her father is struck by lightning. There’s a terrorist attack at the local department store and the town becomes a focal-point for politicians and the media. Then there’s all-out war, with militia groups and refugees and pyrotechnics.
Each scene involves a rotating troupe of actors playing multiple roles, giving the evening the feel of a vaudeville show. There are music and dance numbers, acrobatics, comic skits, a brass band, and serious monologues. It’s like a direct-line into the mind of a theatre student in the midst of a candy-floss binge. A pig-sty’s worth of shit is thrown against the wall. Little of it sticks.
There are occasional flashes of brilliance. Francesca Mills proves to be an excellent slapstick actor, carrying large portions of the play with her wicked comic timing. There’s a tear-jerker of a monologue by Siobhán McSweeney, which feels entirely out of place but is masterfully delivered. There are a couple of good jokes.
But boy does it drag. It takes some doing to make a play this full of ideas feel so interminable, but 100 minutes and several lifetimes later, I was bemused, shell-shocked and unsure if there was a point to it all.
Some in the audience were howling throughout; others refused to offer so much as a clap when it was finally over. Pity is about as polarising as a mainstream play can be, and I’m afraid I’m on the end of the pole that says “avoid at all costs”.