This is the first time that I have been back to Paradise in the Vault this year and the brothel which faces the venue has been since turned into a youth hostel. It is hard not to picture desperate-looking men bursting into the backpackers’ rooms in the dead of night, and a whole world of misunderstandings and recriminations.
“The Noctambulist,” a play which also features nocturnal adventures, is written by Joe Skelton and it has arrived from Durham University. It seems very fresh and original, but there is a definite familiarity beneath it all. “The Noctambulist” is one of several plays that I have seen over recent years which somehow gives the sense of horseplay during a funeral. These plays are often produced by students, although Ella Hickson’s “Boys” is a model specimen from the mainstream. There is always lots of good, playful messing about, but this cannot compete with the sadness. The funeral is that of a generation of students who are over-educated and underemployed, consigned to a future of cuts and shortages.
The strength of “The Noctambulist” is that this interpretation has been placed within easy reach but that we are still allowed to reject it. Alexander Drury plays Albert, a layabout who doesn’t want to sign on to Jobseeker’s Allowance and be packed off to work. With no place of his own, he is staying with his old friend Bryan (Theo Harrison) and Bryan’s girlfriend Sarah (Lily Morgan). Albert is supposedly designing a graphic novel, whilst his flatmates are slaving away at more prosaic jobs to put food on the table. Sarah periodically makes bloodcurdling and sometimes quite convincing threats to kick him out. The question for us is whether Albert has been unfairly left behind by a careless society, or whether he should take responsibility for himself.
The building blocks of this play might not be made of concrete. We might wonder why Albert has only one friend and no family; or why somebody as canny as Sarah ever okayed him to stay in her home. Yet once we are in the surface of this play, the observational writing is first-rate. Although the classic flatsharing disaster is a story that you hear at every student party, Skelton brings us a truly magnificent example.
Albert is oblivious to the daily awkwardness of living in somebody else’s love nest. There is nonetheless an implication that Bryan is only using Albert to try to preserve a side of his own personality which will have to be ultimately destroyed if he is going to be in a relationship. When discussing Albert’s sleepwalking, he hits on the metaphor of the whale, which has (he says) two completely separate minds. Bryan may like to have sly fun when he is chuckling over his breakfast cereal, but he has traded the remaining 99% of his life and freedom, or a whale of a time, for his girlfriend. The play is misogynistic in this rather wistful way – Sarah, the serious woman, is undoubtedly right, but if only she was not so.
Another thing to comment on is a very fine, somewhat itchy horror element which is sustained throughout the play. The reports of Albert’s sleepwalking and a tall tale about his encounter with a druid add a mild air of mystery, which is at times nicely chilling.
The play would have been much more difficult for us if Albert had been conventionally inadequate or slobbish, so that we were repulsed by his character. Drury’s Albert is recognisably infuriating, but he is also charming and likeable. He smiles with immense satisfaction every time he blinks, or gapes in mocking stupefaction with his mouth hanging open. He is as restless as a chimpanzee and he invariably ends up capering around the stage, with his rolling chimp walk. There is essentially no harm in him and by the end of the story we may still indulge some idea of his artistic genius. If only he was capable of organising it, this play would have a happy ending.