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Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse Borough – review

Joseph Charlton's Uber-themed piece runs until 25 March

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse Borough
(© Nick Rutter)

Although Uber is never specifically mentioned, the story of that online and on-the-road phenomenon – from the eureka moment prompted by a young entrepreneur failing to get a cab following a high level conference in a major city, through global domination, to a drivers' strike over pay and conditions – is undoubtedly the basis for Joseph Charlton’s lean, sparky play. Originally seen at the 2018 VAULT Festival with different creatives and cast, it’s now back in a somewhat reworked form.

Charlton also wrote Anna X, the semi-fictionalised stage life of “fake heiress” socialite/con artist Anna Sorokin (seen in the West End in 2021 with Emma Corrin), and seems to be something of a specialist in creating tangy theatrical riffs on edgy true stories. Brilliant Jerks employs just three actors in multiple roles to tell a tale of boardroom intrigue, personal betrayals and the establishing of something so successful and widely used that it dwarfs all of the individuals instrumental in its creation.

It’s a lot to pack into less than ninety minutes and, while consistently interesting and entertaining, Charlton’s text and Katie-Ann McDonough’s nimble production tend to sacrifice depth and character development to powering through an epic story and keeping the plates of a trio of discrete plot strands spinning. With impressive dexterity, Charlton presents three different strata of staff levels within the same gigantic corporation: at grass roots level there’s Mia, a Glaswegian cabbie with a troubled personal history (Kiran Sonia Sawar), in the middle there’s gay programmer Sean (Sean Delaney) who has undetectable HIV, a fact he keeps to himself until it’s forced into the open, and then at the top of the food chain, there’s sleek, mega-rich Tyler (Shubham Saraf).

Each part of the story has the potential to fascinate but falls just short of being really meaty, partly, I suspect, due to time constraints, but also because Charlton slightly forfeits dramatic tension in structuring the play as a succession of monologues with forays into dialogue. Frustrating though that is, there’s an elegance and truth to the writing that commands attention. Although it doesn’t have quite the same expansiveness and imaginative flair, Brilliant Jerks is frequently reminiscent of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, which also charted a real life tale of big business explosion, albeit one with a far more catastrophic outcome.

McDonough’s abstract staging has a terrific drive (pun intended) and energy, carving exciting drama out of some of the confrontations and sensitively handling the more intimate moments (Sean’s tentative romance with a senior colleague is particularly nicely done). It proves inhibited though by Hazel Low’s gleaming but intermittently cumbersome set, a circular black dais-cum-runway that usefully represents a boardroom table or the interior of a taxi but for stretches of the show occupies centre stage to no discernible effect, banishing the actors to the corners of the playing space, which inevitably dissipates some of the focus.

The actors are superb and manage the lightning metamorphoses into contrasting roles with subtle skill. Between them, Sawar, Delaney and Saraf have some serious and starry screen credits (The Nevers, Black Mirror, Killing Eve, Life After Life, Shantaram, among many others) but their stagecraft, individually and collectively, is exhilarating to experience at close quarters. It’s a common current criticism of theatre that shows are too long, but here’s one that would benefit from being significantly longer.