We all know who these characters are, but they’re never named, so in theory they could be anyone. A professor (Simon Rouse) whose theory of relativity transformed the scientific field; an actress (Alice Bailey Johnson) instantly recognisable for her platinum blonde hair, white dress and signature beauty spot; a baseball player (Oliver Hembrough) who married the actress and has a nasty temper; a senator (Tom Mannion) who uses bullying, machismo tactics to get what he wants.
Terry Johnson’s Insignificance didn’t happen, but it could have done, such is his attention to detail and understanding of the characters’ intrinsic behavioural patterns. The show is an alternate reality in which we as the audience are able to probe the sacrifices required for fame, the loss of ownership of a name when it is catapulted into the global, public sphere. The action takes place in Max Dorey’s nondescript hotel room, somewhere for our actress and professor to hide from the world and revel in their anonymity until the outside comes barging in.
Insignificance risks becoming a caricature sitcom in many respects – the portrayal of the actress (Bailey Johnson) and the professor (Rouse) are a convincing pastiche of reality. But then, is it possible for these individuals to be anything other than a public reconstruction of their personalities? Both actors unveil the humanity behind the outward-facing façade with conviction; particularly in the case of Johnson, who naturally exudes sex appeal while also displaying a fragility and desperation to be considered as an intellect, as well as a physical form.
Johnson uses comedy to initially collide these worlds, a contrast that at times generates intrigue and at others leaves the audience detached. David Mercatelli’s direction seems all about the pairing – the professor (Rouse) and actress (Bailey Johnson) hit a homerun with convincing chemistry, whereas Bailey Johnson’s relationship with the baseball player (Hembrough) is a strike out, lacking layering or unrealised potential. In many ways it highlights the dynamics of each connection, in which the intellectual understands intrinsic, psychological flaws whereas the sportsman is portrayed to act with fists first and thought second. Once again, we have a sitcom on our hands.
The predictability of Insignificance is enhanced by the archetypal middle-aged, white, male villain. In this case it’s the senator (Mannion), who clumsily throws his power around in a manner that paints him as a pantomime villain too stereotypically for comfort. The comparison to the current state of affairs, in which alpha men of the senator’s ilk are still convinced they can put pressure on the female or the geek to bend them to their will, signifies that not much has changed since Johnson originally wrote the script over 25 years ago. What is interesting here though is that the aggressive males are the weaker performers – Mercatelli’s focus puts the ball in Bailey Johnson and Rouse’s court and gives them the upper hand.
“Knowledge is not truth, merely agreement” according to the professor. Celebrity is too, the agreement of a personality that you decide the individual should adopt without considering their actual character. Johnson’s script is not in line with this mantra – it considers the person beneath the name and their search for both truth and knowledge. At times, the search yields several dead ends that stray into a predictable, lacklustre territory, or a conclusion that is laboured and drags along without impact. But Insignificance counters this with erudite conversations, real discussions of worth and want that, contrary to the play title, are the most significant in their realisation.
Director: David Mercatelli
Writer: Terry Johnson
Design: Max Dorey; Richard Williamson (lighting); Dinah Mullen (sound)
Cast: Alice Bailey Johnson; Simon Rouse; Tom Mannion; Oliver Hembrough
Photos by Alex Brenner
Insignificance plays the Arcola Theatre until 18 November 2017. For more information or to book tickets, visit the website.