Review: ‘Citric Acid’

Flicking through the programme for the Burton Taylor Studio, I was instantly impressed by the range and variety of plays being put on throughout this term and excited by the emphasis placed on new writing and acting. Citric Acid, running this week and written by Mina Ebtehadj-Marquis and Alex Newton, lived up to my expectations. The ‘pithily absurdist satire’ was carried off by a cast bursting with energy, and writing balanced between humour and bleakness, maintaining a level of tension that coursed through the play to culminate in an abrupt conclusion. The play follows two lemonade-stand owners, Alice and Ben, and their successive interactions with different customers, from hipsters to Karl Marx (with an Australian accent). Underlying these scenes was an exploration of the corrosive and inescapable consequences and experience of addiction, whether it was to another person, to technology, to alcohol, or to sex.

On entering the small room in which the performance was staged, you were greeted by the sight of people with painted faces drifting around the room. What struck me was a figure in the corner: a clown-like man who followed the every movement of a phone held up before him, as if a puppet being pulled about by invisible strings running from the screen. Another character, also with a painted face, stalked around the audience, the palpable anger emanating from his figure intimidating. This was the same actor who would later play Karl Marx with an Australian accent, able to switch between roles so fluidly it was hardly noticeable that he played both.

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The stage consisted only of a small aisle running between the audiences seats, to the lemonade stand labelled with ‘nut free’ and ‘gluten free’ signs. It effectively involved the audience in the play while simultaneously allowing the actors to portray the isolation the characters felt, for example when one of the stand owners lay twitching on the floor in the darkness between the rows of seats as the sound of a metronome ticked overhead. Ben (Alexander Hartley) was at this point given an opportunity to show his characters’ previously repressed emotions; in other scenes he was a reserved, almost cowardly character, but this scene allowed for a more striking performance, offsetting Hartley’s talent and energy.

The simplicity of the set and clever use of lighting and sound — the play started with a voiceover advertising a ‘safe intranet’ for children, a disturbing note to begin the night with, as the bright breezy voice contrasted with the content about which it was speaking — all combined to immerse the audience in the action. It did not surprise me that at one point, another clown-like figure metamorphosed into a parody of a god, and the front row audience were made to, after praying to ‘our father’, eat a lemon, the ‘body and blood’. Religion, enterprise, even relationships — everything that gives life meaning in the play was exposed and desecrated.

Alice (Chloe Wall) and Ben worship the lemonade they make, since it is the only stable thing left in their world. Their home lives, if they have them at all, are crumbling around them. In reply to what they plan on doing each evening, their answers are always ‘the same’ or ‘the usual’. The mockery of modern life and portrayal of hypocrisy in society, seen through these different characters, was piercing. In each scene the narcissism of the characters came to the fore, be it the girl whose hard day consisted of a night spent dreaming of drowning in coffee, a pointed comment on the compulsive coffee drinking of the student generation, or the hipster crowd who followed after Karl Marx. The whirlwind collection of absurdist scenes could have been overwhelming, especially in such a small space and in such a short span of time, but the comic timing and fast pace kept the audience engaged and alert.

Comic at times, dark and bitter at others, the forty-five minute performance left the audience wanting more. We all filed out feeling dazed at the shortness of the experience, after a few murmurs of ‘is it finished?’ had run round the room. On reflection, the shortness of the piece was essential: interest in the lives of these bizarre characters and their rituals could easily have been lost if the play had been too much longer. Three people to my right started to discuss the fact that they ‘didn’t get it at all’, although they laughed as they said this. You might not have to ‘get’ all of it but it’s easy to understand the critique of modern society and the humour that punctuates this, and recognise something of our world in that short performance. Citric Acid is nothing like I’ve seen before — the closest thing to it might be the dystopian Project Colony by Fourth Monkey Theatre Company. But to me, that’s a good thing. It is a challenging, thought-provoking experience and an ambitious one too, carried off by a daring cast. For those already interested in theatre and even for those who are not, I’d certainly recommend it.

Tilly Nevin

‘Citric Acid’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 31st October; for more information and to book tickets please visit their website.

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