Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that a time existed before we all had a ride-hailing app on our phones; a time when something simple like getting a taxi could be a difficult task. But all great ideas have to come from somewhere, and Joseph Charlton’s Brilliant Jerks imagines this spark of creativity and explores the impact it’s had.
At no point is it mentioned by name, but it’s fairly obvious that the play is inspired by Uber. The company (both in real life, and here in it’s fictional form) has it’s fair share of lovers and haters, but what’s undeniable is the way it changed transportation in cities right across the world.
In some ways this is Brilliant Jerks 2.0 having had a previous life, including a run at VAULT Festival, but this production has had its core code refined for a new run at Southwark Playhouse. Katie-Ann McDonough directs a trio of actors who take on multiple roles to tell the story from different viewpoints.
There’s a lot going on here, but the main story arcs can be split into three; the driver, the programmers, and the founders. All these people have very different experiences of the company, yet what is interesting is how their shared experience is all driven by the same factors.
For Mia, the driver, portrayed by Kiran Sonia Sawar, we discover how a chequered past had led her to be working in the gig economy, as the founder Tyler (Shubham Saraf) later says “we’ve created jobs for people who thought they’d never work again.” Mia, is dealing with her own demons, including tracking down her adopted son, and staving off the urge to return to substance abuse, but also has to contend with the misogyny that comes with being a female driver.
There’s even more sexism in the corporate office, Amy is looked over for promotion time and time again in favour of Sean (Sean Delaney), who’s both male and in a relationship with his manager. The corporate culture comes from the top, Tyler calls it “frathousery” but it’s clearly more sinister, and more damaging than his term implies.
The set consists of a round table, which serves as the centre of a boardroom to the back of a cab, while neon lighting helps create the various other locations in between. Part of the genius of Charlton’s script is how well it portrays inequality in various forms and guises; the drivers struggle by below minimum wage, while the office teams are flown to Las Vegas to celebrate the company’s success. Then there’s the sexism and, to some degree, homophobia built in there too.
The slick three hander shows us that the people at the top are all too often jerks, but they’re also brilliant at what they do. That presents a problem when you’re creating a multi-billion dollar company, and asks what you’d be willing to accept in terms of behaviour, in exchange for results.
As well as being thought-provoking, Brilliant Jerks is also a very comical piece of writing; the corporate jargon, “I’m super-pumped” amused the audience no end, and even more so when delivered with true swagger from Shubham Saraf. The cast do extremely well in slipping in and out of the multiple roles they play, Kiran Sonia Sawar is particularly good at this, easily defining the differences between the Scottish driver, and the neurodiverse programmer. Sean Delaney feels the most authentic in role, the scenes in which he plays Sean feel heartfelt and genuine.
Joseph Charlton has written a play that is both epic and intimate, mirroring the size of the company and the experience of taking a ride. Brilliant Jerks is funny and thought-provoking without losing a sense of the characters and their importance to the story.
Brilliant Jerks is at Southwark Playhouse until 25th March. Tickets are on sale here.