Apocalypse Now: Smoking Gum’s Fallout

Charlie O’Grady sampled the play on tap at The Exchange Hotel

Fallout is not what one expects from pub theatre. It seems implausible that a play about the end of life and civilisation could find a home in the Balmain Exchange Hotel, but Smoking Gum Theatre have given it their best. Even the eerie green light of the EXIT signs either side of the stage, the opulence of the bar behind us as it faded into the wreckage of the panic room where Fallout sets itself, and the fact that through one more tense moment of silence Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun wafted through from the next room, did little to detract from the microcosm of fear and grief created on stage.

Pearce has written a tight script. At times rushed and underdeveloped, it has a specific project to explore the human reactions to something we can scarcely imagine. Whilst the logic and technical knowledge of the plot is at times very fuzzy (for example, a frequently cited algorithm that facilitates the destruction of all major cities), it is understood that factuality is never the point here. The script cares deeply about humanity, and as such confronts fear, and rage, and bitterness and hope. It is both unforgiving and gentle in equal measure. Where Fallout struggles, however, is that, whilst the script consistently tries to do one thing, its direction and production attempt to do too many.

The production crosses various styles—at times a black comedy, at times a serious rumination on apocalypse, at times an abstraction of hallucinatory states. Performances range from melodrama in the commanding presence of Patrick Trumper as the ghost Daniel Radford, to the sometimes dry humour of Jim Fishwick as the dying poolboy Stephen or Louise Harding as the radio presenter, to the quiet intensity of Stephen’s partner Michael, played by Ian Ferrington. As much as the simplistic set of the panic room and the use of archival footage of Duck and Cover advertisements from the 1950s are, on their own, effective, it is not entirely clear how they go together—if anything, this clash lessens the potential effect of either.

Fallout, essentially, was inconsistent. One of the play’s core themes is the ghosts of one’s past, and their consequences. However, this theme is obfuscated by the difference in the way the two ghost characters are framed by actors Trumper and Ferrington—the former a commanding and hyperreal essence of the man Samantha married, the latter a subtle, gentle, and realistic presence to the point of being almost corporeal. The use of these hallucinations in the production also felt incomplete—the apparent ghost who visits housekeeper Ann (Moreblessing Maturure) appears twice, briefly, in voiceover, and as such is not seen, nor offers anything to the character or plot.

This production was certainly enjoyable, and affecting, and in multiple moments a very funny reflection on what we can only stand to joke about, and never acknowledge—our imminent demise. Whilst the piece never quite realised its full tension or energy, and whilst the production feels haphazardly put together and confused, its ambition as a piece of student theatre is admirable.