Last February, Glenn Waldron's play Natives made its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse. It was smart and slick, but ultimately po-faced and unaffecting. The Here and This and Now, transferring to the same venue after debuting in Plymouth last March, is anything but. Structurally playful and infused with a gleefully black humour, it absorbingly exposes the irresponsibility of big pharma, the depravity of salesmanship, and a whole lot more besides, all in a brisk 80 minutes. It's hilarious and horrific, all at once.
It revolves around four co-workers, travelling reps for (boo, hiss, etc) a huge drug company. In the first section, we witness Niall, Helen, Gemma, and Robbie (Simon Darwen, Becci Gemmell, Tala Gouveia, Andy Rush) on a tedious away day, with each of them practicing their version of the same sales pitch – a sly, faux-personal spiel about "everyday moments" and "just wanting to help people". Niall is slimy and confident, Gemma forthright and brash, Robbie ridiculously OTT, and Helen can't remember her lines. With each repetition, it gets funnier and funnier.
Interspersing these speeches, Waldron slots bursts of energetic bonding exercises ("Captivate! Associate! Detonate! Kill!" goes their sadistic mantra) and neat, naturalistic chats about the job, the company, the lifestyle, and life. It's a fleet-footed, formally daring, and funny as hell – Glengarry Glen Ross, if it had been written by Caryl Churchill.
It's in the dystopian second chunk that Waldron really has fun, though. Fast forward to 2024. An ugly, lethal virus has decimated Europe thanks to our overreliance on the "miracle cures" pushed on us by pharmaceutical companies. And poor, spluttering Helen has kidnapped Niall. She's prepared to do anything, including torture, to get hold of the mythical "unicorn pills" that will save her sole remaining relative. What transpires ain't for the faint of heart, but it's still funny: as Waldron's play gets darker and darker, so does his comedy.
Director Simon Stokes and his cast deserve huge credit for finding both the humour and the horror in Waldron's writing. Rush and Gemmell in particular turn in seriously sharp comic performances, and kudos too to designer Bob Bailey and lighting man Andy Purves, who manage to make an anonymous office space visually compelling throughout. What's most remarkable about the play, though, is how intelligently it traces the tendrils of our anaesthetized, antibiotic-dependent society towards a stomach-churningly scary future. If you like Black Mirror, you're going to love this.
And if this is a significant step for Waldron's playwriting career – it definitely should be – then let's also tip our hat to Stokes' Theatre Royal Plymouth, a regional producing house that consistently punches above its weight with new drama. In fact, I can't remember being hit harder.
The Here and This and Now runs at Southwark Playhouse until 10 February.