Unreachable opens with a harrowing scene in which a mother kills her baby. Natasha (Tamara Lawrance) acts the monologue in near darkness with impressive passion and gasps ripple through the Royal Court Theatre when the time comes for her to snap the infant’s neck. But it’s just an audition; the lights flick on and Natasha trots off to find the loos.
Devised with the cast in the rehearsal room, Unreachable is a playful play about loves, losses, egos and the pressures of creative work that toys with its audience from the get-go. There’s a growing mood-board of clues online including songs, Marcel Proust, and videos about refraction but really we don’t know what to expect except for floppy haired ex-Doctor Who Matt Smith in the lead as Maxim, a film director searching for an elusive perfect light. What we get is the unexpected, though it certainly feels like a work in progress in both good and bad ways. Of course there is still plenty of room to shape and perfect – the pace is a little uneven in places and there’s a bit too much going on. But above all else it’s fresh and fun and has the deliciously raw potential to be the kind of work even Maxim might be satisfied with.
Smith’s difficult, prodigious perfectionist is joined by a cast of huge characters and two live animals (one a perfect visual image, the other a teasing enigma). Anastasia (Amanda Drew), the no-nonsense producer, has to find a new backer after Maxim makes a costly decision to move to old-style film. Unfortunately the millions come with conditions including a deaf spy on set, Eva (Genevieve Barr), who’s intent on keeping flighty artist Maxim on a tight corporate schedule. Attempting to capture the light of Maxim’s dreams is world-weary director of photography and mostly-nice-guy Carl (Richard Pyros) but he reaches the end of his tether once gun-toting, leather-clad human spanner in the works Ivan the Brute (Jonjo O’Neill) flamboyantly bursts onto set from a metal box. It’s a strong ensemble but once O’Neill gets started, playing Ivan as a combination of Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart and a generic Eastern European action movie baddie, he steals every scene and has the audience crying with laughter.
Unreachable is packed with one liners, repeated sight gags, industry jokes and slapstick, pulling out almost every trick in the book for a laugh. Like all the best comedies, though, Neilson’s play has heart and it’s brought out by the brilliant performances of Amanda Drew, Genevieve Barr and Tamara Lawrance, whose nuanced explorations of modern women in business and in love, on and off camera, deserve far more focus than they get in the production’s current form. Nevertheless, the play that has grown out of Unreachable’s rehearsal process is ridiculously hilarious and seriously original. The ending is nothing short of breath-taking: Chloe Lamford (set), Chahine Yavroyan (lighting) Nick Powell (sound) and Zsolt Balogh (video) combine forces to capture not only the light but also the feeling the play has been grasping at for two hours. You’ll find it in the cast’s digital collage of ideas (unreachabletheplay.com) – saudade, a word in Portuguese and Galician that claims no direct translation in English. Meaning: a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.