Terms & Conditions – the absurdity of modern Britain
Snapshots of an ongoing crisis in British identity have not been short on the ground recently. Last week, the claims that Roma immigrants were being preyed on by ‘local Pakistanis’ keen on ‘educating [them] on English ways’ were leapt on by Labour MPs David Blunkett and Jack Straw as proof that Eastern European immigration was leaving society on the edge of a race war. At the same time, arguments over public figures not wearing the poppy, and the long-running battle over Ralph Miliband’s loyalty to Britain, point to a horribly confused notion of whatever ‘our’ shared values are today.
Patrick Marmion’s new play, Terms & Conditions, doesn’t explicitly take on national identity, but his Pinteresque comedy does allude to some pertinent questions. Its plot concerns a young middle-class family who are suddenly thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a mysterious vagrant named Liv (Mike Burnside). He’s of indeterminate, but vaguely Eastern European origin, and is armed only with a violin, piles of cash and a devoutly mystical Catholicism. His mere presence in their tidy world is profoundly psychologically disturbing: the discovery of him sleeping in the basement provokes young doctor Kat (Jennie Gruner) into curtailing their housewarming party by cracking an old friend over the head with a candlestick. Later on, following the aborted slaughter of a dog, the play begins to go in a Stoppardian direction, as it becomes clear that Liv’s presence is not merely a social menace, but an existential threat, too.
Terms & Conditions is certainly not an allegorical play about immigration: its joyous absurdist qualities mean it defies easy interpretation. Yet Liv’s foreignness does serve a purpose, adding to Marmion’s portrait of a society ill-at-ease with itself and deranged by its determination not to ask probing questions about its raison d’être. The play’s inherent strangeness is marked out by its central characters’ refusal to engage with each other with any sense of trust and honesty, and frequently blinded by their own paranoid assumptions. A recurring motif has characters expressing a pedantic obsession with the structure of various things – such as jelly and custard – which distracts them from more pressing concerns.
The great strength of Terms & Conditions is that Marmion does not seek easy answers. Liv serves a disruptive function, rather than an educational or therapeutic one: his simplistic, old-fashioned values appear as a threat to the other characters’ cynical alienation, but they aren’t posed as meaningful alternatives. Instead, Marmion urges the audience to question some of the root causes of social mistrust, like the modern mantra of ‘stranger danger’ which fuels the family’s initial fear of the kindly old man they find sleeping in their basement. However, he also calls into question the false sources of wisdom and consolation in modern society, as embodied by life coach Liz (Victoria Walsh), a recurring character who carries on like a bona fide psychiatrist.
Terms & Conditions is an intellectually abrasive experience, packaged in strong performances and peppered with darkly hilarious moments; an accessible work that asks how any outsider could possibly integrate into a society so torn apart by mistrust.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.
Terms & Conditions is playing until 1 December at the White Bear in Kennington, London. Book tickets here.
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