Esther Ruth Elliott
Samuel West’s tenure as artistic director at Sheffield Theatres is now sadly drawing to a close, but he shows no signs of resting on his laurels. The world premiere of How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found is something of a coup for Sheffield, especially seeing as the play has already hit the headlines for being the first unstaged play to win the prestigious John Whiting Award.
Charlie is a stressed out advertising executive on the verge of burn out. His mother has just died, he’s on the run from his drug dealer, and his firm are looking into some creative accounting that he’s been indulging in. He’s also being haunted by visions of visitations from a pathologist who claims he’s lying dead on her slab.
His solution is to run away and start a new life, but this is a play about more than just changing your identity. Brilliantly written by young playwright Fin Kennedy, How To Disappear tackles notions of post-millennial angst and emptiness, loneliness and communication.
The opening scene sets the atmosphere perfectly, with Charlie recovering from a black-out in the lost property department of London Transport. Kennedy hooks the audience straight away with a wonderful diatribe about the loss of mobile phones, while the background rumble of tube trains gives an ominous, eerie effect.
The first act is punchy and fast moving, with excellent direction by Ellie Jones and some creative use of the Studio’s intimate floor space. The script flows beautifully, with some wonderful lines being perfectly delivered by the cast. A monologue delivered by Charlie about the frustrations of inner-city living is electrifying, and some superb choreography by Jones, especially the portrayal of a tube train journey, adds to the edgy feel.
As Charlie, William Ash is nothing short of outstanding. A familiar face from television, thanks to roles in shows such as Clocking Off, Conviction and the criminally under-rated Burn It, his part is miles removed from his usual gritty Northern everylad persona.
Onstage for almost the entire duration of the play, Ash perfectly embodies Charlie’s journey from arrogant cocky city boy at the start to the bewildered, crushed soul at the play’s end. Of the supporting cast, Richard Bremner is the perfect mixture of menace and wisdom as Charlie’s mentor Mike, Sian Brooke does well with the difficult role of Sophie the pathologist and Esther Ruth Elliott takes on a variety of roles with equal aplomb.
The second act takes a noticeably darker turn as the consequences of Charlie’s identity change come back to haunt him and he’s left with a crushing sense of loneliness. It’s here that Kennedy’s writing really comes into its own. Although the subject matter is necessarily bleak, it’s never depressing or morbid with some darkly humourous moments amongst the rumination on the human condition.
It’s tempting to compare How To Disappear to films like Fight Club or Falling Down, with its emphasis on the emptiness of modern living. Yet there’s much more to than that ‘ despite the profound nature of the play, Kennedy has made it accessible and fast moving, especially to an audience that wouldn’t normally step foot inside a theatre. It’s an extraordinary achievement, one that more than lives up to its attendant hype, and a perfect swansong for Samuel West.