The Brink (Orange Tree Theatre)

Mel Hillyard directs this dark new play about a teacher on the edge

Astrologers have a thing called Saturn’s Return. Every 28 years or so, Saturn completes its orbit. The theory goes – cough, splutter, ahem – that this triggers a transitional phase in people’s lives; a metaphorical rebirth. Whether or not it’s true – again: cough, splutter, choke – plenty of people hit turbulence toward the end of their twenties and again in their mid-fifties.

For Nick, a 28-year-old teacher, Saturn has returned with a vengeance. He’s hit something like stasis: stuck in a job he’s not sure he wants, in a cramped, studenty flat he shares with his go-getting girlfriend, in a world with problems piling up. It’s possible he’s depressed, or stressed, or maybe, as his patronizing headmaster insists, just modern – wracked by millennial angst. Either way, a recurring nightmare keeps interrupting his sleep: night after night, he sees his school ripped apart by a bomb blast. Ciarán Owens plays him with terrified eyes and a watery smile.

To get ahead in life, we have to let the system swallow us whole – and it’s that Nick’s resisting. He can’t swallow his convictions at school, understaffed and over-systematic, or ingratiate himself with his girlfriend’s smarmy boss. Realising that the world works a certain way – that "we keep our mouths shut and our eyes closed" – he pushes back. Principles get the better of him.

Brad Birch, winner of the Royal Court’s Pinter Prize, catches this with a broad sitcomish humour – refreshing for a subject, mental health, so often handled with reverence – but for all its laugh-out-loud lines, The Brink comes unstuck in imposing a plot. Turns out Nick’s dreams have a basis in reality: an unexploded WW2 bomb sits, waiting, under the playing fields. As he tries to warn others, Nick finds himself sidelined, struck off the teaching rota. Growing increasingly obsessive, first his relationship, then his life, starts to unravel. He’s the archetypal truther, out to reveal a deep-seated conspiracy, but butting up against Kafkaesque collusion at every turn. Snatches of David Bowie’s "Heroes" echo through Tom Gibbons’ sound design.

However, as events run away with credibility, The Brink outstretches itself. Rather than showing us a conscientious young teacher frustrated by the petty regulations of the school system, Birch wraps the idea in a clanger of a metaphor: the ticking time bomb on which society is built. The school stands in for the world; Vince Leigh‘s villainous headmaster, for the powers that be.

On Hyemi Shin’s scorched earth set, emerging director Mel Hillyard‘s production doesn’t quite convince. She’s not helped by a small cast forced to double up as teenagers. Owens just about holds it together as Nick fails to do so, bringing an off-beat comedy to a nervous breakdown. Alice Haig and Shvorne Marks provide strong support, as a sympathetic colleague and an unsympathetic girlfriend respectively, but even that can’t keep The Brink from toppling off the edge.

The Brink runs at the Orange Tree until 30 April.