Eureka Day at the Old Vic – review
There’s a scene at the centre of Jonathan Spector’s sharp comedy that reduces an audience of 1,000 people to helpless laughter. The setting is the Eureka Day school in Berkeley, on the West Coast of America, and a group of anxious, well-meaning adults are perched on brightly-coloured furniture that is slightly too small for them, leaning intently into a laptop.
They are holding a “Community Activated Conversation” over zoom. They represent the school board and at the other end of the camera are the (unseen) group of parents. There is a mumps epidemic at the school, and the board is proposing a quarantine for all unvaccinated children – of whom there are many, because this is the kind of liberal establishment where all children are referred to by gender neutral pronouns and even the donuts are ethically sourced.
As board chair, Don, an ageing hippy in shorts and scarves, tries to operate the camera and explain the school’s policy – “I know there’s a lot of anxiety out there right now…so I am just trying to keep my heart open to all of you and I know you’ll do the same” – the comments from the parents on the livestream unfurl on the set above his head.
Quickly, the contributions evolve from a discussion of natural remedies versus ibuprofen, and then into a full-blown battle between anti-vaxxers and those who believe that their approach is dangerous and ignorant. Everyone wants the best for their children but there is absolutely no agreement on what best represents. It’s only a few moments before the comments skip to accusations of fascism and downright abuse. The final emoji, from a character whose main contribution to the debate has been a thumbs up, tips the audience in a gale of laughter.
The satire is broad but perfectly calibrated; the writing fiercely accurate and director Katy Rudd holds the whole collapsing scene – "this is not how we treat each other," wails Don – with wonderful precision. In the laughter, there’s a kind of recognition. The online meeting that descends into chaos, the argument about vaccination and public safety feels like an experience that everyone has had, one way or another, in recent years. Yet the play was first seen in the States in 2018; its aptness now is quite coincidental.
It is, in fact, a pretty good comedy even without its topical overtones, nailing a particular type of middle-class thinking with uncanny accuracy. Here it’s given a fabulous outing (a co-production between Sonia Friedman and the Old Vic), set by Rob Howell in the kind of room where the building blocks spell out Activist, and clothed by him with a beautiful eye for West Coast casual.
The cast is led by Oscar-winner Helen Hunt making a finely-etched London debut as the patrician Suzanne, who fails to recognise her own prejudice and sense of entitlement under a blanket of concerns about equality and making space for all. She’s more than matched by Susan Kelechi Watson (of This Is Us fame) who is wonderfully subtle as Carina, a woman struggling to make a different view heard in a space that is delineated by unacknowledged privilege, and gradually finding a way to challenge the idea that individual choice always trumps the public good.
Mark McKinney makes Don idealistic as well as irritating, Ben Schnetzer finds deep emotion as Eli, whose earnest and easily adopted attitudes are challenged by experience, and as May, Kirsten Foster makes the most of a wonderful speech where her frustration at her powerlessness in the face of the destruction of the planet spills out.
It's fairly clear where Spector stands in the vaccine debate, but he is careful to recognise that there are reasons for the worthy aspirations of his targets. He gives the vaccine reticent a reason for their beliefs; Suzanne has cause to distrust Big Pharma.
Some of his more interesting ideas – what really constitutes community values, how herd immunity actually works, the difference between believing in climate change (backed by scientists) and vaccine denial (not backed by scientists) – get trampled in the rush to an overly-pat conclusion.
Nevertheless, Eureka Day is a bracing corrective to the idea that you can only discuss serious issues with a straight face.