Having had my fair share of difficulties with landlords and letting, I had high hopes for Suffragette Theatre’s Agency, written by Tom Murray, a play centred around two employees of the eponymous housing agency. It did not disappoint. The play’s action all takes place in a dislocated and dream-like letting agency, uprooted from a coherent reality. Its two agents, Gestas Jones and Dismas Smith, find inventive (and hilarious) ways to pass the time, as the phones on stage begin to increasingly ring and demand their attention. Rife with religious and mythical references, the play feels a bit thematically messy at times, but overall creates an intriguing atmosphere.
Clearly inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot it wears its influence on its sleeve; the absurd situation, the two foolish agents, a long breathless monologue, and even beginning with one character taking off his shoes, it aims for (and achieves) a similar feel. As the double meaning of the title suggests, this too is a play around the ‘agency’ of its characters, who seem to be at the mercy of a biblical landlord.
The play is packed with this kind of wordplay and double meaning, with an impressive number of puns scoring laughs, delivered with impeccable timing and gusto by Isabella Thompson (Gestas) and Ben Cartwright (Dismas). The best uses of wordplay, however, were those where language games were paired with physical comedy. A fantastic example involved reducing ‘throw a log on the fire’ into simply ‘throw a log’ when they swiftly realised that they were missing a fireplace. The pathetic sight of the log hitting the wall might have been one of the funniest things I have seen on stage in a long while.
Of course, the effectiveness of the physical comedy depended on the performances of Thompson and Cartwright. Both brought a fantastic level of energy to the play. Although the stage often only had the two of them, it never felt empty. Their performances were convincing and complementary: while Thompson’s Gestas was often frantic, loud, and authoritative, Cartwright’s Dismas was often gormless, meditative, and confused. While the wordplay and stylistic dialogue had the danger of dehumanising the characters, both Thompson and Cartwright brought real feeling to their performances. While a few lines were lost in their rapidity, both actors remained clear and displayed an impressive level of verbal dexterity. A dizzyingly rapid monologue performed by Thompson even elicited claps from the audience. Cartwright sheepishly joined in the applause then looked a little confused afterwards: a nice improvised fourth-wall break. While the play was dominated by Thompson and Cartwright, the supporting cast played an effective role. Etienne Currah’s surreal delivery of his lines as the unfeeling landlord never failed to elicit a laugh, while Eliana Franks’ tenant was played convincingly, but perhaps felt a little too real compared to the stylised performances of the other actors.
The actors’ physical energy was given an outlet with the inventive choices of props and set design. A particular moment involving a ladder, a stick, and a roll of toilet paper was particularly creative, and had me laughing fit to burst. The stage itself was dominated by the ladder in the middle and had a nice symmetry with two boards on either side, painted tallies adding a bit of environmental storytelling. It is impressive how the cast managed to keep track of the numbers of props, working with multiple phones, sticks, buckets, toilet rolls, and logs. Social distancing requirements also meant that props were often used in innovative ways – the actors literally held each other at a stick’s length a few times, and the passing of a prop between actors involved farcical manoeuvring and shuffling.
A particular, and unexpected, strength was in the lighting. Some impressively ominous effects were created with shadows, and the actors, Thompson especially, knew how to exaggerate their gestures when only their outlines could be seen. The positioning of lights was also effective and created a particularly moving scene at the end.
The music choices sometimes felt a little random and tonally jarring, but grew increasingly effective as the play progressed. The use of a vocal montage, and choral music were particularly effective in a couple of moments. Furthermore, the precise timing of large numbers of audio cues really made the performance go smoothly and must have required a great deal of practice.
If you are looking for a cathartic release of frustration, a hilarious night out at the theatre, or something to do this Halloween, I would highly recommend checking out Agency at 7:30pm this evening at the Assembly Rooms Theatre. After all, perhaps the scariest Halloween costume is that of a landlord.