This new play - co-written by Mark Catley of Crap Dad fame and burgeoning writer Aisha Khan - centres upon ironically-named Baron, a call centre worker who is anything but the noble, strident figure that suggests. Bradford’s Theatre-in-the-Mill hosts three spaces for the action, one of which is Baron’s takeaway box-strewn apartment room, where he sits on a dull brown leather armchair and holds conversations with his telephone receiver, A-machine. This disembodied voice amusingly counsels Baron in a smoothly patronising register, as he counts the pills he is steadily stockpiling in a hat box.
Alternating a dull existence alone in this uninspiring home, and a second location – a centrally staged – empty call centre office, Baron cuts a curious figure, displaying signs of obsessive compulsive disorder, checking the items of clothing as he puts them on: “Grey hat, purple scarf, green coat, grey bag”, and takes them off: “Grey bag, green coat, purple scarf, grey hat”. This mantra becomes a key source of pathos and comedy, once even sung by Baron in moments of optimism, and eventually discarded as Baron’s personal transformation throughout the short play takes place. Here Mark Catley’s characterisation – as he takes to the stage - is startling in its detail and depth, and Baron’s niftily observed behavioural quirks are brilliantly understated.
Providing a neat contrast to the awkward bodily tension that Baron exudes, his boss Jon breezes in and out of the office with a barrage of abuse for Baron and waves of cocky superiority, flashily suited and booted in recognisably arrogant fashion. The dynamic here is nicely set up, and our sympathies instantly fly towards Baron in the face of the petty loathsomeness of John Catterall’s character. Catterall makes a steady job of what could be a commonplace role, and really nails it with his cringe-inducing flirtation with new girl to the office, Melissa, an attractively chirpy, optimistic young woman played with guileless charm by Jennifer Bea. Melissa’s entrance is the stimulus for a change in Baron, and his tussle with what he wants and A-machine’s deprecation become the premise for the enfolding action.
Barney George’s simple, detailed set is adroitly supported by the lighting effects of Keilidh Whyte’s modern silhouettes, and is visually balanced, placing Melissa’s neat, butterfly-decorated apartment on the opposite side of the stage to Baron’s cluttered room, emphasising the parallels drawn between the two characters in the dialogue.
The ultra-realism of the piece, as outlined in the programme byAisha Khan who also directs, did leave the pace a little too sedate, and the impact of Baron’s karaoke sets, occasionally interspersed between the office scenes, could have been amped up to provide more of a contrast. Important moments of theatrical explosion could also have been handled with more finesse, as they didn’t pull the punches they should have done: when Baron’s sudden blow to Jon’s nose burst out of nowhere, it seemed unexpected and rushed.
Nevertheless, Beep is an appealing slow burner, with subtle writing that is witty, insightful and often lyrical. Beep has all the right components, it just needs a little touch of alchemy to transform it into something extra special.