Afterthought Theatre’s “Beep” is a student production from London and it has just finished up at the Space on North Bridge. With this play, the run of good luck that I have enjoyed during the last few days has come to an end. “Beep” is definitely a dud. I have more patience with bad theatre when the Fringe is young and its annihilation seems remote. Now that I am grieving over every hour that is passing, the timewasting of “Beep” is intolerable. This play is of value to the contemplative theatregoer only due to the mysterious and uneasy stance that it takes on its own specialist subject of bodily autonomy.
“Beep” is set in the UK in the near future. A law is being introduced that requires all adult men to have a microchip planted in their left arm that, yes, beeps whenever they tell a lie. The beeps are piercing and it is unclear which bodily aperture the speakers are installed in. After they each get the op, the young men of this story are potentially wired up for infinite hilarity. But this fortune is squandered: the play concerns itself with a dreary kerfuffle in which a girl has slept with her boyfriend’s best friend.
Rose (Rhiannon Cura) apparently beds Noah (Louis Ellis) out of absent-mindedness. It is an overly airy fling and their attraction to each other is never convincingly conveyed. Later, she attempts to justify her betrayal as a kind of compensation for her boyfriend’s unpleasant remarks about her weight. All of the characters are shallow and rather unlikeable in this way. There are two surplus characters (Milo Clarke and Leah Balmforth) who do nothing really to excuse their presence on stage. As the single potentially worthwhile clown, Charlie Barnett has been told to just be funny, without being equipped with any jokes or plot to help him.
When Rose is confronted by her boyfriend Matty (Alex Boorman), she fesses up without needing a beeper. Curiously, the unique device that hangs dangerously over these characters is never actually used in the end. It is unclear whether this is an intended irony or merely an oversight. Matty progresses from being grumpy and self-pitying about Rose’s betrayal to committing a murder. Yet I couldn’t imagine the character working himself up into this state and the play can’t either. So the scene prior to the deaths – the climax of the drama, in fact – is not shown.
Why do none of the characters fight back against the chip? These days, one is inclined to grow increasingly suspicious of the under 25s. They are frighteningly apolitical and they mostly want politics to be privatised, or contracted out to a faraway organisation such as the EU to deal with. If the government genuinely sprang a violation of bodily autonomy on today’s young people – such as outlawing abortion or making it mandatory to donate a kidney – would they all gormlessly go along with it, as the characters in this play do? “Beep” is so unsettling because it does not appear to grasp that it is depicting a dystopia. The forcible microchipping of politically passive young people is viewed as being just an accident of fate and a quirky storyline.