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 The Theatreguide.London Review

It Just Stopped
Orange Tree Theatre  February-March  2014

It Just Stopped, by Australian playwright Stephen Sewell, is a satirical allegory, which is to say that not everything we see on stage turns out to be actually happening, but is a projection or exaggeration for comic or critical effect. 

I won't tell you which parts aren't real, partly because I'm not absolutely sure myself, but just note that the device designed to keep us off guard sometimes gets so complicated and multi-layered as to lose us completely. 

Sewell's main satiric target is middle-class complacency, the kind of thinking (or deliberate non-thinking) that lets people pay lip service to but essentially ignore third world poverty, AIDS, global warming or any of the world's other ills with the excuse that, since they personally can't do much about it, they shouldn't let it upset them too much. 

But, along with the play's disorienting structure, Sewell's satire is so scatter-shot, spraying widely at a dozen only vaguely related targets, that his main point continually threatens to get lost. 

A young American couple are improbably living in Australia on the fringes of being well-off and the fringes of high culture he writes book reviews on arcane topics while she works for a particularly offensive 'shock-jock' radio personality. 

One day (and let me remind you again that not everything I'm about to narrate may actually be happening) the electricity goes off, as does the water and radio, and instead of walking downstairs from their flat to see what's going on, they conclude that it's The End Of The World and panic accordingly. 

Things actually get worse when a knock at the door introduces an evidently rich but thoroughly vulgar Australian businessman (think of Barry Humphries' Les Patterson character) and his wife. 

They engage the Americans in a string of conversations, debates and mind games that demonstrate that Stephen Sewell has read his Edward Albee, touching on everything from the role of Art to American gross consumerism to the masses' fear of real freedom, before making a proposal that even further exposes the Americans' emptiness. 

At times the play feels like the work of a very clever but not equally talented undergraduate, throwing in everything he remembers from his courses in philosophy, psychology, political science and music appreciation, fuelled by the contact high of all-night dormitory debates on all that newly-discovered knowledge.

Issues are raised and topics are discussed for the sheer pleasure of talking about them, and some of that excitement may carry over to the audience as the characters are inspired to wit or eloquence. 

But it doesn't hang together, and Sewell's unspoken 'Well, we've exhausted that topic, so let's talk about this for a while' structure is just as likely to lose the audience with its shapeless lack of unity and forward movement. 

Stuck with characters who have to change frames of reference and indeed entire personalities every ten minutes or so as the play moves on to a new subject, director David Antrobus and his cast Joseph Klosk and Emma Pallant as the Yanks, John Bowler and Cate Debenham-Taylor as the Aussies perhaps wisely choose to play them all as cartoons, the oversimplifications and exaggerations contributing to the satiric energy while partly disguising the fact that they are generally little more than mouthpieces for the wide-ranging debates and shotgun satire.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  It Just Stopped - Orange Tree 2014

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