Gretta and Danny’s flat has become another of the many battlefields in the war against the cost-of-living crisis. Day after day the two flatmates come up with increasingly absurd strategies for saving money and avoiding eviction and bankruptcy. Then an energy bill shows up at their doorstep, a big one, so utterly unpayable that it might just have the power to rewrite the rules of playing fair.
In The Big Bill, John McGlade, the author of 2022’s ingenious novella Invisible Schemes, makes clever use of satire to take aim, once again, at the British socio-economic class divide and the cruelties it harbors. While perhaps a little less surreal than the author’s 2022 effort, The Big Bill still lives in the liminal space between the utterly absurd and the painfully real. The horror McGlade summons often comes from showing us how insignificantly small that space can be when speaking about contemporary Britain.
For all its thematic seriousness and ambition, The Big Bill is still a very confident comedy. The laughs are cathartic and frequent, the dialogue is snappy, and the actors are absolutely on point. The jokes never felt cold or cheap, they were instead always expertly tied to the heart of the characters and the progress of the narrative, which is no easy feat, especially considering the sheer quantity and quality of the gags planted throughout the script.
That said, without a doubt, one of the most stunning moments in The Big Bill comes at the height of the narrative arch, when the protest at the core of the text becomes so uncontainable in its anger that it punches right through the clenched front teeth of the sardonic smile of satire. The message is suddenly too big for fantasy or metaphor, too painful for jokes. The stage lights go cold, the audience sits up in their chairs, the actors’ masks drop a few inches and the elephant in the room is addressed with sobriety, an ‘all jokes aside’ insert that causes the audience, in seeing themselves and their communities mirrored, to reach for the pitchforks against an all too real ‘them’ who have shed its humanity in lieu of profit. Riotous applause erupts.
Then, remarkably, the lights dim again, the audience relaxes, and the show goes on without skipping a beat.
The Big Bill was directed by Lauren Mitchell and written by John McGlade, performed at the Òran Mór.