“Truth isn’t the standard by which things are judged anymore”
If Natasha Bertram’s sleek, stylish, and modern set wasn’t enough of an indicator, then the opening montage of viral videos sealed the deal: The Be All and End All was to be a current and contemporary piece.
This was about all I knew heading in to the theatre for Johnathan Lewis’ new play, currently enjoying its world-premiere run at the York Theatre Royal. In retrospect, perhaps this was a good thing; I had zero expectations and, as a result, I was completely blown away.
The play focuses on middle class parents Mark and Charlotte, their son Tom, and his girlfriend Frida as the latter two undertake their final A-level exams. When a timetabling clash provides the opportunity for Tom to cheat on his last politics exam, the results of which will secure his spot at Cambridge, the foursome are divided as to what to do.
Simple in concept, extraordinary in execution.
Firstly, the dialogue is really what puts The Be All and End All in another league, Lewis skilfully navigates a range of both light-hearted and serious topics all with an underlying familial tension that is unnervingly relatable.
(Seriously – I challenge you to watch this and not recognise yourself at least once. I may be a tad biased though, as a fellow Tom who also enjoyed the A-level stress, it’s hard to not to feel that this play was tailor-made for me).
The opening scene, in which both teenagers attempt to explain to Tom’s parents exactly why ‘Charlie bit my finger’ is a funny video, is a perfect testament to this free-flowing and witty dialogue, setting a tone for the piece which is impressively maintained throughout.
Central to The Be All and End All, however, is the idea of division. What starts as a light-hearted misunderstanding about the cultural significance of the sheepdog Fenton, soon becomes a wider debate about politics, the education system as a whole, and the much larger question: how do we define success?
Credit to the director, Damian Cruden, who accentuates these larger themes in a way that isn’t distracting or obnoxious. He gets dangerously close, I felt, with a transition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy fading into Boris Johnson talking about Brexit; in the context, however, it was forgivable.
Additional credit goes to Jonathan Holby and Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, the fight director and choreographer respectively. When these larger themes eventually come to a head, and our characters are lost for words, it is their work that carries the momentum of the story forwards. Without giving too much away, the fighting is incredibly executed, so much so that it’s actually almost difficult to watch, in perfect keeping with the rest of the production.
All of the above would be nothing, however, had it not been brought to life by such a talented cast. Robyn Cara (Frida) and Matt Whitchurch (Tom) give wonderful performances, balancing both the brash confidence and internal fragility of your classic 18 year old. The obvious inner conflict as these two struggle with life-defining decisions, as well as those that have been made on their behalf by Tom’s parents, are some of the most captivating moments of the play.
Also a special mention here must go to Imogen Stubbs, who is simply phenomenal. Despite having to grapple with some of the play’s more hard-hitting material, she doesn’t once stray into cliche; a credit to both the writing and Stubbs’ performance. Stubbs has even perfected the tone with which all mothers of children named Thomas scold their child. I know this because my body would tense every time the name was mentioned as if it were my own mother telling me off – as I said: unnervingly relatable.
With the play nearing its conclusion, Stubbs’ Charlotte laments “we just wanted you to be happy” and, as an audience member, it’s difficult to disagree. Despite tackling some very big questions, The Be All and End All leaves you only really caring about one thing: the characters.
The final scene sees a now adult Tom directly addressing the audience with a story about Chet Baker, the famous Jazz Trumpeter, before playing a piece of his own. His playing is accompanied by a slideshow of Tom’s childhood pictures, and, as you look at the child who could quite easily be you, one thing is for sure, you don’t care whether or not Tom got in to Cambridge.
The Be All and End All runs until the 19th May at the York Theatre Royal before going on tour to Colchester and Windsor.