Ed Harris’ first major play - smartly partnered with Anthony Neilson’s Realism at the Soho Theatre - is, first and foremost, a setting out of the playwright’s stall. Set in an office so generic that it’s never entirely clear what job its worker-bees fulfil, Mongrel Island is a rejection of a nine-to-five, institutionalised, establishment way of life. It says, ‘Look at me, freelance and carefree’. It says, ‘You see Dad, this isn’t me’. It is a broad brush-stroked justification that bears little resemblance to real life. That it feels familiar - and it is a staple of graduate festivals - is because every emerging theatremaker has a Mongrel Island in them. It is as formulaic as baby food.
That formula, for all that Harris carries it off with verve and swagger to provide an enjoyable entertainment, is very simple. At it’s heart is routine - a mind-numbing task that gives characters something to do and a reason to be present. Added to this are a series of idiosyncratic rituals: here, the same lines repeated day in day out, a disappearing hole punch and a motivational oath sworn each morning. As for characters, take one normal one to whom we can relate and bed them into a gaggle of oddball archetypes (‘You don’t have to be mad etc etc’) The only thing left is to up the absurdity ante until monotony and surrealism clatter together like ball-barings in a Newton’s Cradle.
As for specifics, Harris goes heavy on the office as wasted life. Marie (Robyn Addison, not always at ease) is on probation in a job processing forms to do with the dead. Worse, though, is being forced to delve into the archive to log their possessions. Boxes of stuff, ballet shoes and old photographs, serve a painful reminder of the brevity of life, as the drones churn through a sludge of paperwork and devise new methods of winding one another up.
Mongrel Island‘s best note is the clever triangle around Marie. Hope comes with Elvis (Shane Zaza), a quiet autistic man, who finally escapes this Platonic Cave, riding his beloved bike over the hills and far away. It’s nicely contrasted with the hopelessness of Pippop, an Eastern European cum Ewok of a cleaner, longing for her absent husband, and the embittered, parched cynicism of Only Joe (Simon Kunz) who gives a sense of corrosive purgatory.
There’s humour within, but laughter is given rather than grasped, due to the ease of surrealism. Often anything goes as long as it comes from leftfield. Harris’ sharper lines are those that snap across the office floor, particularly when in the mouth of a perfectly cast Kunz on top form. As is Zaza, whose absolute naïveté hovers between sweetness and threat.
Solid and flickering with promise, not least because it suggests a vivid theatrical imagination, Mongrel Island is just too easy by half. If Harris can find an area of his own - and a further notch of rigour - he could pull of something special. As it is, however, Mongrel Island is merely workaday.