The Suffragette Theatre Company’s production of Agency is an innovative Waiting for Godot inspired dark comedy, directed and written by Tom Murray. In true Beckett fashion, this show specialises in intelligent and thought-provoking nonsense, in a world where time no longer means anything, and all knowledge is constantly questioned and undermined.
This production is truly as ambitious as it sounds – the two central characters are Dismas Smith and Gestas Jones, played by Ben Cartwright and Isabella Thompson respectively, who are the two thieves who were executed beside Christ. They enter into a purgatory which is in the form of a letting agency, where they eternally have to listen to the incessantly ringing phones without answering. An intriguing and original premise, which is startlingly different from the usual student-written theatre.
Overall, however, it lacks cohesiveness, and the religious illusion seems a little tacked on the end rather than a main focus as the central characters suggest. It attempts to cover a lot of issues, but only seriously succeeds in commenting on a few. For example, it does successfully satirise the student housing crisis and the complete lack of power tenants hold in a clever and hilariously inflated fashion. This is the strongest element, and where Tom Murray’s careful wordplay and back-and-forth comedy shines. Admittedly, it is not always funny, but the two central cast members deliver the lines with excellent comic timing and a great comedic chemistry (which is particularly impressive since they only had five days of in-person rehearsals).
Ben Cartwright’s penitent thief is convincingly gormless and quirky, and one of the best scenes is when he accidently answers a ringing phone and panics, with some hilarious circular logic and great physical comedy. On the other side of the phone is one of the tenants, played by Eliana Franks, who is fine in the part, but the character is slightly underwhelming after the larger-than-life insanity of Dismas and Gestas, and I was left unsure what the point or relevance was regarding the wider play. Maybe I missed something obvious, or she is just there for comedy purposes, but either way the play lacks cohesion and clear vision at some points. I did enjoy Isabella Thompson’s recital of the ridiculous weekly newsletter, which is a mixture of nonsensical lists of synonyms and over-the-top sentiments which amount to very little. Thompson’s performance of this is certainly impressive, the frantic speed of the purposefully convoluted sentences is done with a terrifying accuracy and successfully illustrates the emptiness of the ‘caring’ sentiments which corporations spew out to their customers. Thompson and Cartwright are not perfect, the constant intensity was sometimes slightly exhausting, but nevertheless they carry the challenging dialogue well and convincingly portray the shifts in mood, from nihilistic despair to light-hearted chatter.
One of the most successful parts is the God-like presence of the landlord which looms threatening from behind a screen and intermittently appears looking down from the top of the stepladder. The landlord is played by Etienne Currah, who is an amazing combination of faux-friendly and incredibly creepy, with his repetitive ‘automated-message’ style replies. Beyond the humour, the script and cast succeed in creating an ominous looming suspense, especially leading up to the end which climaxes with a sort of surreal intensity.
I won’t dwell too much on the linguistics of live theatre during Covid, because I know everyone is bored of hearing about it. Only to say that the production team do incredibly well under the circumstances, and I felt safe on my own row with no-one sat in front or behind me. The Covid content within the show itself is mostly in the background, and when it is mentioned it feels thought-through and purposeful. It mostly comes through in the purgatory-isolation comparison (a little melodramatic but it works), with the boredom and feeling of timelessness, and the idea of being stuck with the same person in the same room for eternity.
I enjoyed Agency overall, and it certainly surprised me and made me think, which I think is an impressive achievement for any student-written production, especially one which has been written and performed under these circumstances. It is on again on 30th and 31st October at 19:30 in the Assembly Rooms Theatre.
Image: The Suffragette Theatre Company