TIM WALKER reviews the National Theatre’s latest production
Ironically, the highest salary I’ve so far received in my career was when I was required to do absolutely nothing. I was working for a business start-up that no one was supposed to know about – something to do with upgrading the security technology at airports – and I was in charge of communications.
Schlepping to work each day on the Tube, I’d often look around the carriage and wondered where we were all going and why, quite possibly because the first book I ever read in my life from start to finish was Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?
It’s a good question and Annie Baker’s The Antipodes answers it in relation to eight men – and one woman – who appear to work for a major advertising agency and gather around a boardroom table at the start of a new campaign to bond. Their dominating boss Sandy (Conleth Hill) has clearly got lucky somewhere along the line with his revered but unseen partner Max and he’s consumed with his own sense of brilliance. He encourages his minions to believe they can “change the world”, and maybe in these days of utter vacuity they can. He’s given to tortuously long and self-congratulatory monologues and loathes being interrupted.
The team members start off by telling each other stories about their sex lives as part of a bonding process, and this gives the ensemble cast a chance to demonstrate their skills as storytellers. It also demonstrates the comedy there is to be had in excruciating embarrassment. They men are self-conscious with their one female colleague (Sinéad Matthews), but, when it comes to her turn, she is every bit as crude and vulgar as they are. The expressions on the men’s faces are beautifully judged.
There are a number of characters called Danny, but the one played by Matt Bardock reminded me very much of David Cameron’s ghastly guru Steve Hilton: A creepy, bald-headed office monster full of buzz words and balderdash. Stuart McQuarrie is very good too, as another Danny, who’s eventually deemed by Sandy to be so boring he’s sacked. The great Hadley Fraser excels, too, as a rather sad fellow who, for one reason or another, isn’t being paid, but knows it’s rather awkward to mention it.
The funniest scene in Chloe Lamford’s production comes in a conference call with Max, the supposed genius behind the organisation – his is the voice of Andrew Woodall – and the problem is the phone keeps cutting out and no one quite knows when they should be agreeing or disagreeing with him.
Baker has as a writer been peculiarly adept at finding humour and tension in unlikely places – one thinks of The Flick and John – but I am not sure if she has really been able to sustain it in this trendy office and – rather like at the business start-up where I worked – I’m afraid I soon started to yearn to get home.