As an American child of the Eighties, I can assure Whatsonstage.com readers that we had our own Threads. When The Day After was aired on US prime-time television in 1983, it sparked off riots in some cities while, in schools the next day, normal lessons were abandoned for discussion of the film. On the night itself, I recall cowering beneath a blanket, watching the grim scenes of nuclear holocaust in Kansas unfold through laced fingers. When my sister scolded me for getting so upset over a movie, I screamed back at her, “It’s real! This is going to happen.”
It’s hard to fathom now in our post-Cold War world, but total annihilation seemed to me then like a probability if not a certainty. Far more real and terrifying than today’s comparable threats of global warming or scattergun terrorism.
In this country, playwright David Eldridge must have been similarly scared out of his wits, if the obsessive dread he lends his 11-year-old protagonist John is anything to go by. But what Eldridge cleverly, if occasionally too obviously, does in his latest play, set in 1984 after Threads’ broadcast, is to apply those universal fears, paranoia and military stratagems of the time to a very personal conflict.
For John, the none-too-ironic acronym M.A.D. stands not just for Mutually Assured Destruction – which maintained that protection could only be secured via nuclear parity between the US and Russia since both could obliterate the other a thousand times over – but also Mum And Dad, who practice their own violent version of that military doctrine in their cramped Essex home.
As market trader Kelly and his cheating wife Alice, Lee Ross and Jo McInnes are wary and bitter combatants. Most astonishing, though, is 13-year-old Lewis Chase, making his professional stage debut as their deep-thinking and feeling peacemaker son. Gerald Lepkowski’s traitorous family friend Luigi acts more as a plot device than a fully drawn character, particularly in the final ’20 years on’ scene with Daniel Mays’ adult John, during which the aftermath of domestic tensions are related with rather too much expository detail.
Still, in Hettie McDonald’s thoughtful production, this time travel does allow for a remarkably lengthy and involving scene transition, as Ross and McInnes pack up the detritus of their lives as their son(s) watches on. Overall, you can’t help wondering if M.A.D. might have been better rendered as a television drama, but this flash-forward alone earns it its theatrical stripes. It’s one of many powerful moments in a memorable evening.
- Terri Paddock