It was Chekhov who defined the essential rule of theatre props. ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall,’ he told a friend in 1889, ‘then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’ It doesn’t need to go off in predictable ways – Uncle Vanya proves that – but without the bang, it’s just window-dressing.
When I saw the emergency axe pinioned high on the wall at the beginning of Buggy Baby at London’s venturesome Yard Theatre – far too high, it seemed, for anyone to reach – I thought its purpose would be symbolic. We’re in a state of crisis with no help to hand. Got it.
But Josh Azouz’s play and Ned Bennett’s fiercely insano production spring one surprise after another, and the axe is just one switch among many. Buggy Baby is set in a room where refugees Nur and Jaden struggle to make a life and raise Nur’s baby, Aya. Max Johns’ set initially seems a space of stark symmetries. Objects (fridge, basket, one-eyed toy rabbit) sit neatly at the back, and a wardrobe hangs with Narnian peculiarity halfway up the wall. The axe, under its emergency sign, waits aloft, perpendicular to the ceiling. Crossing the pale pink carpet to find a seat, I worried about scuffing it. I needn’t have fretted – soon enough, the carpet has been resplendently soiled and despoiled, its peony expanses riddled with weaponised domestic clutter.
Why the crisis? Oh, so many reasons. Nur is fitfully committed to college, so leaves Aya with Jaden, whose focus is foxed by his khat habit. He chews, he views – notably seeing sleazebucket, gun-toting rabbits. Aya has problems of her own, enhanced by being played by an adult (the superb Jasmine Jones, with grabby fingers, shuttling between beam and tantrum, frown straining as she fills her nappy. It’s the most enjoyable performance I’ve seen all year). Aya wears a pink helmet to shape her soft skull, and is mostly confined to her buggy because they can’t afford a cot. She also, especially when alone with Nur, speaks like a stroppy teenager, cussing up a storm, slapping down dismissals. She knows about how fucked everything is, but she’s also just a baby in a buggy. Menaced by rabbits.
There’s a lot of quality prop in this show. A tree made of large, glitter-filled balloons. A rubber duck for bathtime play (“I’m learning to be creative with shit,” sighs Aya). Plastic bazookas for bunnies. Bennett has pursued a theatre of sensational unreality, staging texts (Pomona, An Octoroon) that spin giddily away from normcore. But, crucially, it’s also a highly functional theatre. Nothing, however outlandish, appears by accident or simply to astonish – every prop, juxtaposition and dirty bunny is in the text and has a job to do. Ditto the axe.
Violence and glitter
Bennett doesn’t merely orchestrate extremity but is also a terrific director of conversation: you listen hard, missing not a beat of Azouz’s dialogue. These characters are in trouble, and there are things they want to say and things they don’t want to hear. There are things we may not want to hear either, especially when it comes to Aya’s welfare. The laughs and shocks – expertly ramped up by Jess Bernberg’s lighting (reader, I squealed) – don’t mask the sense that something drastic needs to change. We need an emergency axe.
And, as the peril ramps up, so too does every inch of the set come into play. All throwable objects are thrown. Someone makes it to the top of the wardrobe, in and out of which characters have vaulted. Nur, roused to intervene, marches in with a very long ladder and makes for the axe. The result is violence and glitter.
Something is very wrong for this makeshift family, but Azouz plays things poker faced. A documentary approach would grind the situation grey; a gothic style would exploit its terrors. On the other hand, there’s a backchatting baby and rabbits smearing themselves with suntan lotion. The axe makes a late textual appearance – yet it’s an unobtrusive act of genius on the part of Bennett and Johns to have it there all the time, something apparently ridiculous that is supremely functional, that carries the potential for harm and release and will go off quite spectacularly. Chekhov rules.
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