They can't see the truth for the scam
Monday 31 May 1999
SWITCH, THE protagonist in Alan Pollock's new play The Death of Cool, is the kind of man who would like to believe that he is superior to life - life, in his view, being a corrupt participatory sport that begs to be outcheated. "You can either make shit or you can eat it... and if you are going to eat shit, you might as well eat the most expensive in the world," is his philosophy. From his achingly trendy flat (a witty, mobile design by Es Devlin), he is running a nation-wide scam of benefit fraud, helped by a gaggle of exploitative young admirers. Through ruses such as palm-reading in pubs, they filch people's identities and make social security claims on their behalf.
In a Ben Jonson comedy, you would witness this elaborate trick in action and also see enough hypocrisy in the law-abiding to reckon there's satiric justice of a sort in their being duped. Pollock's play declines to take either of these routes: wisely, because the scam feels far from watertight and its morality is thoroughly dubious. Instead, the focus is on the psychology of Switch, cursed with the sterile, over-cultured cleverness that enables people to see through things without seeing them first, and to be so precociously bored that only the buzz of crime can keep them going.
If you leave the piece feeling that Pollock has over-estimated the fascination of this kind of figure, it is no fault of the central performance in Gemma Bodinetz's chic, patchily energised production. Crackling with nervous electricity, Colin Tierney's excellent Switch negotiates the world through a compulsive romping repertoire of lofty parodies and self-parodies. His behaviour is as firmly clamped between ironic inverted commas as the head of his DJ-ing young acolyte Richie (Gideon Turner) is between headphones. His eyes burn, warningly, that there is that within which passeth show.
The trouble with the play, though, is that it does not bring Switch into collision with characters who are sufficiently interesting in their own right to put his evasive pseudo-superiority to a really thought provoking test. His oldest friend, Lisa (Susannah Doyle), is an implausible concoction, a singer from a famous rock band and former heroin addict who wants to give up shallow success and do a teacher-conversion course. Saddled with some excruciating lines ("You opened my eyes - my Croydon convent-girl eyes..."), she has the unenviable task of voicing very dull-sounding virtues.
More promising is the bricky (Jem Wall), who returns from building brothels on the German/Polish border to find that Switch has usurped his social security identity. His stories of the ultimately desolating hedonism in those temples of the new capitalism can't help but cast unflattering light on Switch's philosophy; he is quickly bumped off, though, in another plot strand that never develops true momentum.
In Moliere's The Misanthrope, the central character satirises society but, in his excessiveness, becomes an object of the play's satire. The same process never quite happens here. It's as though Pollock is half in love with Switch's romantic cynicism: instead of giving the play a bifocal depth and complexity, though, this seems to tether it in an emotional immaturity.
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