The Poison Belt @ Jermyn Street Theatre

The Poison Belt, adapted for the Jermyn Street Theatre Footprints ‘22’ season is a new take on the 1913 science-fiction novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Directed by Becca Chadder and produced by Jo Walker, the cast of three women take on the piece of classical science-fiction. Even with the change in medium from prose to stage, the plot of the original novel has remained largely unchanged. Brilliant scientist Professor Challenger is the singular one to predict the Earth heading into a poisonous gas cloud, which seemingly kills off the entire human population, save Challenger, his wife, his three friends, and his apprentice Malone. The last of the cohort also acts as a narrator for the audience, multi-roled by all three actors. The performances of the three, embodying three upper-middle class white Englishmen from the early 20th century (while also deftly switching between their multiple parts) is impressive, with small costume changes, such as the adding of glasses for the character Malone, acting as a nice touch.

When watching the play, I was surprised at the correlation to our current reality. The Earth sleepwalks into catastrophe while attempting to keep social expectations and working life the same, all in the midst of a coughing apocalypse that seems to make people go crazy. As a fan of science fiction, I am always stunned when classical works manage to tie so closely to the modern day, acting as a reminder that despite the times, there is much of us as a society that has remained maddeningly unchanged.

However, in saying this, I was surprised and disappointed with how lacking the production was in the interrogation of the adaptation it was presenting. The first shock of the evening came for me when Challenger, played by Sara Lessore introduced Mrs. Challenger to the audience in the form of a finger puppet. I was even more surprised when this received a flurry of laughs from the audience, with my distaste growing as the imitation of a woman was performed through a nasal high-pitched voice and the wagging of a finger. At one point, to get the wife to stop talking, the finger puppet was removed from a digit and put away, again received with laughs from the audience. Perhaps it is too much to hope for that in 2022, with a female director and cast, we would not need to rely on misogynistic caricatures for attempts at cheap comedy, but I refuse to think so. It is clear that this production was attempting to force us to consider the work in a new light, with the degree of irony in three women of colour playing the men they performed as, but I am of the opinion that representation in itself cannot be viewed as radical. This should be the industry standard. My frustration at the play also arose from the handling of the plot, and the retaining of language such as ‘the savages’ of ‘the Sudan’, a literal echoing of language from an imperialist past with no real consideration of what putting those words into the mouths of these women actually does. This lack of dimension was an issue throughout the play, with an actor at one point using highly offensive racialised language from the novel without warning. In a move that did not meaningfully further the plot or develops established characters, it ultimately felt like an attempt to shock the audience in the final scenes of the play with the outrageousness of the racism in the original text.

Amma Afi-Osei in The Poison Belt at Jermyn Street Theatre – Image Credit: Steve Gregson

Along with race, I also had issues with the play’s presentation of class, with one role of Yuki Sutton’s as Austin, the Butler for Professor Challenger. Insidious stereotypes, particularly relating to the supposed trustworthiness of the ‘gentleman’ in comparison to the covetous working class, are transferred from Doyle’s text to the play, once again without any sort of reflective consideration that theatre, as a live and immediate artform unlike any other, allows for.

I did enjoy the uses of lighting and sound, particularly when it involved elements of non-naturalism and movement, having been designed by Simeon Miller and Khalil Madovi respectively, and the movement credited to Monica Nicolaides. The costuming and props of the production, designed and sourced by Jida Akil and Venus Raven, were also cohesive and true to the time period without being distracting. One particularly haunting scene where both worked in tandem was when the clothes of the populace are laid out to signify seemingly dead bodies lining the streets. Following the millions dead from the Covid-19 pandemic, I could not help but draw similarities to the millions lying in hospital beds separated from their families in their dying moments.

I would like to again commend the three actors on their feat, particularly as it was Amma-Afi Osei’s first professional credit, but rather than seeing them in roles impersonating long-dead Englishmen, I hope for a time where they can perform in a production where their own voices can be heard, rather than being silenced under layers of starchy brown cotton.

The Poison Belt played at Jermyn Street Theatre until 30 July 2022

Image credit: Steve Gregson

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