Contactless debuted as a 15-minute short play at Falling Pennies’ new writing showcase On The Night in June 2016, and writer Tom Hartwell has now extended it into a full-length play, which had a short run at Islington’s revamped Hen and Chickens recently.
It tells stories of something that should be familiar to most Londoners: the London Underground. The original sketch was a series of passenger monologues, ranging from the dilemmas faced when you choose the priority seat to imaginary relationships you can invent with fellow regular commuters; these remain and are interspersed between other recurring threads. Peter Lodge (the original “Mr London Underground”) and his “Mind the gap” successors, station staff cuts, the Night Tube and strikes all feature.
When I saw the 15-minute ‘pilot’ last year (then named ‘Mind the Gap’) it felt like the overall topic was one that could be thoroughly explored, with that first sketch fitting into a piece that included other Tube scenarios. It’s thrilling to see how this idea has developed, and is more than just a series of comic scenes. Hartwell gets the audience to reconsider their stance on the strikes through several scenes between the ASLEF union rep and the Mayor of London’s office (suggesting a marked difference in approach between Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan), as well as a blind date that ends up as more of a debate…
But the Central Line of this play, if you will, is the story of sound engineer Peter Lodge and his wife, Susan. It’s a fictionalised account that amalgamates Lodge and another announcer (Oswald Laurence), but it deftly shows the human side to the London Underground. Susan is a great vehicle (sorry) for demonstrating how long-time TfL employees have been treated in recent years, as well as promoting their skills and experience.
Phil Croft’s direction keeps the pace up, and the production flows very smoothly from one scene to the next (think more Jubilee than District Line). Efficient use is made of the limited performance space, with the stage morphing between Tube car, various offices and other locations.
The cast of six (Rosie Edwards, Will Hartley, Adam Elliot, Jeryl Burgess, Stanton Cambridge and Hannah Jay) work tirelessly, playing several characters through the course of the play. They all provide comedic highlights in the strike negotiation scenes, with Hannah Jay as the increasingly exasperated (but still reasonable) union rep, and the rest as the Mayor’s team; the raft of excuses for Boris’ absence (“Can’t you go to Alton Towers some other day?”) or their lack of productiveness (“Not a lot gets done on gâteau day. Boris’ orders.”) is classic farce and played for maximum comic effect.
Will Hartley’s face is extremely expressive, earning a lot of laughs from the audience for his reactions alone – a favourite scene is Hartley stuck on a busy Tube in the middle of a woman applying makeup and a man shaving.
Jeryl Burgess plays Susan with great dignity in the face of adversity, whether it’s the serious change in her working conditions or being passed over for promotion by someone not experienced enough for the role. The audience is with her all the way, Burgess’ portrayal making you want to punch the air as Susan finally gets what she deserves.
My verdict? A production about something Londoners think they know a lot about, with some more thought-provoking aspects – and some terrific comic performances all round.
Contactless ran at the Hen and Chickens from 30 May-3 June 2017.