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Yellowfin at Southwark Playhouse – review

The new play imagines a world without fish

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
© Helen Maybanks

Marek Horn's sharp new satire takes place in an America of the future, where a fish smuggler has been hauled in front of a committee on Capitol Hill to explain himself. Though he isn't entirely sure what he is expected to explain.

The reason fish smuggling is of such interest to the authorities is that fish have disappeared. Vanished. Even though the seas have risen enough to engulf the entirety of Britain, there is not so much as a minnow to be found. The only fish meat that remains exists in tins, which are traded on the black market and are of increasing scientific interest. Tuna - particularly yellow and bluefin - is top of the most wanted list.

There have been several recent plays that deal with climate change in both a direct and indirect way. Many are very heavy-handed in their treatment of the subject, and often suffer for it. In contrast, Horn manages to bring levity to the issue, and his play resonates all the greater for it.

It helps that Ed Madden's tidy production allows Horn's skilful wordplay to take centre stage. Played in traverse on Anisha Fields' nicely austere set, the exchanges between Calintini, the smuggler, and the three-strong committee feels like sport. Barbs are exchanged, some shouted, others whispered into microphones, as these climate survivors try to make sense of the wreckage they've inherited. There is a Pinter-esque absurdism. The committee often use the words "let the record show" as a veiled threat, while acting deeply unprofessionally.

The wise head in the room is, naturally, Calintini, and Joshua James gives a powerhouse performance. He captures a sense of the anarchic outsider whilst viscerally displaying the pain he feels at the brutal killing of his brother; he retches over the desk describing its gruesome details. On the other side of the carpet, Nancy Crane, Nicholas Day and Beruce Khan make a comic triple act of a committee. Day is the blundering veteran, recalling his fading memories of the taste of fish, Crane the no-nonsense chair desperate for answers, and Khan a kind of stuffed-shirted middleman.

Ultimately their futile attempts to pin down Calintini feel representative of the efforts of state machinery to deal with the climate crisis. Countless enquiries are held in countless committee rooms, but where do they lead? Yellowfin manages to find the balance of being both urgent and genuinely entertaining.

At 100 minutes straight through, it is perhaps a notch overlong. But the climactic moments are superbly well constructed, leading to a delicious denouement. I guarantee you'll never look at a tin of tuna in quite the same way.