Foreign travel used to be so exciting. "Come Fly with Me", Frank Sinatra would sing enticingly. Well, it ain’t quite that way any more – though Natalie Abrahami has him crooning "these foolish things remind me of you" into our ears at the end of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist.
A 'radical’ new American voice, Washburn’s play is dubbed "a rumination on a multi-lingual world trying to understand itself – without the subtitles", a variation on lost in translation, if you will.
Lowell, a young American (the very up-and-coming Elliot Cowan, late of Manchester Royal Exchange’s Henry V and soon to be Mr Darcy in ITV’s Lost in Austen) is on a business trip abroad. We see him being met at the airport where Sara (Jennifer Higham), a young colleague from his firm, begins to show him the city.
Cut to the office and conversations in a language he cannot understand. Cut to further scenes between our Lowell and Sara in which she introduces him to various intemperate local brews and back to the office where Nicol (Alan McKenna), Irene (the wonderful and much undervalued Madeleine Potter) and James (Gary Shelford) bicker and converse in Washburn’s invented language which sounds like a cross between Turkish and Serbo-Croat with the odd Anglo-Saxon idiom thrown in.
All of which begins to add up to a mildly amusing satire against her own. Washburn is clearly having a go at Americans abroad, their inbuilt sense of superiority – there’s a very funny speech by Lowell about winners and losers: "winners believe in goodness, they believe in fairness, and someone’s got to believe in goodness and fairness, someone has to be innocent" – and naivety.
Abrahami’s production, too, is a model of modernist chic. The whole thing is played out on an empty stage, save for a few shiny black box-stools, against Tom Scutt’s pale silhouetting canvas surrounded by files piled from floor to ceiling.
In another life, this might have been the setting for a more foreboding, Kafkaesque nightmare. Instead Abrahami’s production – and Washburn’s writing – gives us a kind of soft, 1950s romantic landing, complete with a Doris Day sound clip.
It’s all very charming and light with delightful performances especially from the angular Cowan, all ruffled incomprehension, and Potter who brings a spikey, daring kind of energy to the table. Washburn could have taken it so much further but seems in the end content to sketch in only an outline rather than really dig into the messy discomforts and sometimes pain of being "lost in translation".