Don’t. Make. Tea., the new dark comedy from Birds of Paradise Theatre company, is uneven yet interesting, frequently silly but smart overall, and both a philosophical two-hander and a multi-person farce. This dichotomy is because the halftime interval is not simply a pause, but a reset. What you get in the first half differs enormously from what suddenly appears in the second.
Yet if structurally and deliberately the play is messy, it is a fine mess. Built around the disability assessment of OPMD-sufferer and ex-detective Chris, Don’t. Make. Tea. contemplates a weighty problem but remembers theatre is a form of entertainment, not a writer’s pulpit, meaning there are jokes both bawdy and sharp. Additionally, the play is politically open-minded: whilst the topics of disability and access are Birds of Paradise’s raison d’etre, the work doesn’t merely lament that the system is broken, and even recognises that advocates of benefits cuts can also be acting in good faith. The theatrical acting, meanwhile, is extremely well done, especially by Gillian Dean as Chris and Aidan Scott as assessor Ralph.
Set entirely in a neat one person flat, with a sofa, table, idiot version of Amazon Echo named Able, and a screen for sign language, Don’t. Make. Tea. is minimalist in design. Its plot is also simple: Chris – who is in chronic pain and losing her sight – is having her benefits frozen subject to a back-to-work assessment. In debt to the extent that she cannot top up the electricity meter, she is determined to fail the assessment, thus restarting the payments but producing a sweet spot of moral ambiguity. The title of the play relates to her first experience of unfair play against an unfair system: if you cannot offer the assessor a cup of tea, you appear more helpless.
Writer Rob Drummond does not offer answers to the disability assessment question, or Chris’s question ‘What do we do with disabled people?’, and at its most political Don’t. Make. Tea. does feel like the lovechild of pair of columnists from the Guardian and Telegraph. Nonetheless, the underpinning message appears to be an appeal for more compassion all round. The elements of mania, explained by the writer’s mention of Kafka and foreshadowed by flickering lights, got big laughs. Furthermore, Birds of Paradise has also done an excellent job in making accessibility integral to the essence of the play: the smart speaker, telescreen on which sign language is shown, and subtitles above the stage, all have parts to play in both narration and comic relief. And, unlike the benefits system, it is a fun night out.
Click here for more information about Don’t. Make. Tea and Birds of Paradise.