You wouldn’t necessarily think that a show depicting the commute-work-eat-repeat cycle within which millennials find themselves trapped would be a natural choice for a stage show; surely escapism is the order of the day – you want to be transported away from your shitty open plan office and morning alarm, right? Ordinarily I might agree (especially as I’ve personally had a few very stressful weeks at work of late), but when something like Withered Optimism comes along, you might be inclined to change your mind.
Possibly what helps this show to stand out and make the impact it does, is the fact that it has no dialogue – instead it relies on performer (& creator) Jack Kelly’s physicality, with the odd man-made sound effect for emphasis. Withered Optimism is deaf accessible, having been made in collaboration with deaf performer Brian Duffy; this widens the potential audience, but also serves as a terrific creative choice. It adds a necessary element of humour, whether via the little noises Kelly makes (you will never hear a better impression of an electric toothbrush) or his use of mime & other physical theatre techniques. He even makes the mundane scenario of a person realising they have time to nip out to buy a fancy coffee immensely entertaining! Directed by Jack Baldwin, I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house – that’s great commitment to making the show accessible.
I believe that any talking could completely undermine the story; it’s a simple narrative, for starters, and that can put the pressure on to say something really profound (or risk boring the audience with stuff they hear every day). With a wordless show, you have the fun challenge of picking up the visual language – and though sometimes it can take a little while for the penny to drop, it’s worth it when it does. Plus, as we’re dropped into a slightly surreal & exaggerated world from the get-go, a little flight of fancy via the Deliveroo guy actually fits quite nicely (Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!).
The show is also peppered with segments of animation, courtesy of David Burnett. First up it sets the scene of robot-like workers stuck in the same old routine, before getting a bit more fantastical later on as the worker dreams of making a brave escape – this breaks up the show nicely, while still moving the story forward. A mention also to Jeph Vanger’s sound design and Berta Pibernat Trias’ lighting design; the latter is subtle, though shows great attention to detail (for example, using a different colour light to signify the bathroom) and the former is useful both in the background to add to the mood, as well as provide some context for certain scenes.
Despite the relatable drudgery depicted, this is a strangely uplifting show – and I think that is largely down to a superb performance from Jack Kelly. He makes an instant connection with the audience, and then takes them on a remarkable journey over the course of an hour. What a delight to watch.
My verdict? A strangely uplifting take on the millennial dilemma, using physicality to give an alternative take on the story – Jack Kelly is superb.
Withered Optimism was at Soho Theatre on 4 July 2022, as part of the London Clown Festival. The show will also form part of Waterside’s Refract Festival on 29 July 2022 – tickets are available online.