“And how does that make you feel?” is the question that bookends Chalk Line Theatre’s newest play, Poison, Hate and Vitriol. I can’t help but think to myself in the moment: “it’s really good, but a bit too long mate…”
Jas (Anish Roy) writes for The Guardian. Kelly (Tiffany Clare) has spent the past few years as a stay-at-home mum after a BAFTA-nominated period working on the BBC’s Panorama. As hectic as things are with a toddler, all seems well for the two until Jas, a man who’ll do anything for clicks, has a lightbulb moment: “What if we became Piers Morgan?”
Et, voila: “Sharon” is created as a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque mishmash of Daily Mail comments, Britain First leaflets and pictures of Kelly dressed as an Oompa Loompa, many Halloweens ago. Planting her seeds in the Twittersphere, virality ensues, forcing Kelly out of her house and into the spotlight, where she provides nuggets of “lemon and herb” – that is, palatable and subtle – bigotry to the masses. But, as the monster breaks loose, so does Jas and Kelly’s trust towards each other (and therefore their marriage).
Thanks to the direction of Vikesh Godhwani, Roy and Clare have impeccable chemistry as the main couple. Roy also plays a variety of smaller parts throughout the show, with a beret transforming himself into Sharon’s tragic feminist rival Rima, and a grey wig helping him become daytime TV’s most polarising man, Philip Schofield. (Sharon’s thoughts on Schofe are our only common thread.)
Technically, Amy Guyler’s script often de-evolves into sing-song incantations that you’d find in nursery rhyme land, even if most of those moments were in regards to their kid. Aside from that, the writing was stellar, yet easy to follow – from Sharon’s multitude of believable media appearances, to Kelly’s poignant monologues surrounding the story of their now-dissolving marriage. As well, The use of kids’ toys as both props and resulting allegorical-Technicolour-mess was genius, even if I felt that the use of multiple plushies to represent their kid felt clearly inconsistent. (Stick solely to the blue elephant next time!)
There are flaws – at 90 minutes, the show is too long, mostly thanks to the overloaded close. It felt like it had as many “but wait, there’s more!” moments as a teleshopping block on late night TV. As well, thanks to the ending’s role-reversal plot twist, I came out of the show not knowing who to root for, which seems weird when that ending seems so set into sympathising towards Kelly. As I saw it, while Jas made the mess, Kelly becomes too comfortable in her role as conservative beacon and loses herself in the process, so it’s likely the role of villain is, as they repeatedly chime, a “shared byline!”
Overall, Poison, Hate and Vitriol comes very close to completely blowing me away, until my spirits are dampened by that absolute pile-on of an ending.
VAULT Festival 2023 runs Tuesday 24th January to Sunday 19th March, full listings and ticket information can be found here.
This review was written by a participant of the VAULT Festival New Critics Programme in partnership with Theatre Weekly. For more information about the VAULT Festival New Critics Programme, and all of our 2023 participants, please visit: https://vaultfestival.com/new-critics-programme/