Tychy@ the Fringe: Midnight Café.

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I feel that Joan Osborne is largely responsible for “Midnight Café,” a play at Paradise in the Vault which is otherwise written by Jamie Rycroft and produced by the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club. The whole of “Midnight Café” is imbued with the spirit of that famous song which Joan sang about God being “just a stranger on the bus, just trying to make His way home.” In this play, God (Anna Clart) had once created the soup of particles which consequently went on to bring the whole world into being. Now, millennia later, God has visited Earth to check up on the place. She opens a café in Milton Keynes, which serves coffee and tea between the hours of eleven at night and three in the morning.

This is not a great business model and it might reflect poorly on the rest of Creation. Still, God has customers – 180 in eighteen months – and She, in Her omniscience, comes to know everything about them. The narrated links between the scenes are based on nuggets of impossible information i.e. how the exact amount of energy needed to roll one character’s cigarette is the same that the character in the next scene uses to dunk her teabag. The café acquires the atmosphere of a midnight mass; the café regular Sari (Jemma Cleary) recites her confession into God’s tape recorder. And as in the original heaven, God encounters a spot of rebellion, a challenge to Her authority.

I am not sure if this is the intended interpretation of “Midnight Café,” but without it the play is prone to degenerate into gibberish. It resembles juvenilia, with a student writer and a young cast in a self-professedly “amateur dramatics” society. But it remains a worthwhile play and it is nicely spooky and suggestable in places. There is the oddity of all these characters drinking coffee in the small hours for no apparent reason. Some say that they just want to stay awake; others don’t seem to have anywhere else to go to. This scenario obviously mirrors the famous Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks” (yes, they’re drinking coffee in “Nighthawks” as well), but in the UK cafés are rarely nocturnal. Once you add the date to this setting, the last New Year’s Eve of the millennium, then the oddity is multiplied a hundredfold. Something totally familiar, the corner café, is now rendered uncanny and alien.

Sari tells an engrossing tale in which only one identical twin is socially mobile. Clearly Cleary is this ensemble’s best performer and she is given the best story. Other storylines are less interesting and they dwindle away without any payoff. There is some clowning about in a door-to-door double-glazing company which could have gone somewhere, but didn’t. Ronald Prokes’ Tom is given a mouthful of philosophy to chew over, but despite this posh boy’s foray into the working class, he is never on to the God who is serving him coffee.

God’s fate, at least in Milton Keynes, is far less dramatic and inspiring than what happened to Her son at Calvary. But maybe She’s just a slob like one of us.

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