“How can I teach on top of a bomb?!” wails Nick, the harried hero of Brad Birch’s new play The Brink. A secondary school history teacher, Nick has been experiencing weird dreams which seem to portend some imminent catastrophe. Stress and depression are variously diagnosed and dismissed as the causes by his girlfriend Chloe and his colleague Jo. But Nick’s visions appear to have an all-too-real root when the school’s slightly loopy Head, Mr. Boyd, lets slip that there’s an unexploded bomb under the playing field, a revelation which sends Nick into a tailspin of anxiety, shared only, it seems, by the sympathetic student, Jessica, in whom he (sort of) confides.
There’s considerable buzz already around The Brink, which is receiving its premiere at the Orange Tree, in a production by Mel Hillyard, who’s directing the piece as recipient of the J.P. Morgan Award for Emerging Director. With a crisp design by Hyemi Shin (in which glowing blocks are the only props) and Bowie’s “"Heroes"” on the soundtrack, the production looks set to capitalise on the hipster-friendly hype of Alistair McDowall’s Pomona. There are definitely some parallels between the two pieces: this, too, is very much a young man’s play, with an attendant paranoia about power, some (overly-)broad comic strokes, and a slightly studied opacity.
A little like Florian Zeller's The Father (which is being performed just a few steps away from the OT at Richmond Theatre this week), The Brink doesn’t just explore a mental state; rather, it attempts, through its form, to embody one. As Nick (Ciarán Owens) unravels, role doublings, well-executed by the competent cast (Vince Leigh, Shvorne Marks, Alice Haig), prove more significant than you might initially have thought, the line between projection, dream and reality gradually blurring.
Alas, also like Pomona, The Brink doesn't add up to the sum of its parts for this viewer, ultimately frustrating more than it rewards. Birch’s writing has flashes of acuity when it comes to showing the dynamics between teachers and hinting at the weirdness beneath the daily routine. But certain moments - such as a truly awful scatological speech allotted to Jo - seem entirely pointless, and some bad gags (“Pick, pick, pick! They should have called you Picholas, not Nicholas!”) fall totally flat.
Starting in quippy one-liner-heavy mode, before attempting a more menacing turn, the tone is wobbly and uncertain, and the play feels sadly superficial where it really counts. By far the most interesting relationship is between Nick and Jessica, the lone student in his "Maths Club" who wants desperately, touchingly to believe that her teacher’s right. Yet Birch backs off from really exploring this relationship, which might have provided a relatable human centre to the drama.
Hillyard certainly succeeds in keeping the production brisk and fluid, with some nifty scene-changes that evoke the overlaps and parallels forming in the protagonist’s consciousness. And Owens contributes a skilfully modulated performance of increasing desperation. Yet, by the showy, twisty yet strangely limp conclusion, The Brink has promised more than it’s delivered.
The Brink is booking at the Orange Tree until 30 April. Further details here.