The murderous swordplay in Never Look Up is a rare thing in contemporary theatre. It comes from Strangers to a Slaughter, a US-based show founded by Joe DeVito to showcase his acclaimed cranks, grinders and assassins, capable of shooting to kill, stabbing to flesh and bludgeoning to death without a paisley jersey in sight. The show is unique, unsparing and almost certainly the best crowd-funded touring production in the history of the UK theatre scene. Its English offering is presented in a frenetic current form, and based entirely on Travis Ng’s engrossingly complex text.
‘Orbiting disease’ … Sam Horsfield as Benjamin Albin and Stirling Glendinning as medical student Dr Goddard. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne
In the minds of its creators it is what happens when the powers-that-be try to legislate for self-expression but realise that they no longer have control over those they have “allowed to lie down on the battlefield”.
Played out on an intricately pulpy set and broken down into succinct sections, the show pokes fun at the lottery initiatives that have emerged in recent years to help communities get online, but never in such breathless ways. Each new champion (or opponent) of inclusivity is attacked for their ignorance and hypocrisy, while also gaining the kind of internet notoriety that only a professional assassin can muster. The tragicomic shtick reaches new heights when onlookers and victims are pelted with bile by the sharply drawn enemies.
As usual, DeVito’s script is sharp and razor-sharp, sharpest as in a speech by Bernini’s painting of a murdered priest. It shows a vision of a world where those whose messages do not conform to dominant beliefs survive by breaking free of their relationships to those who have previously determined their fate. There is even the hint of an Isis subtext in an earlier lynching scene, as an exasperated medic puts on a pageboy wig and hoodie, and appears to recite lines from Saadi’s suicide note, only to disappear when the audience light up with righteous horror.
Death benefit … Albin is haunted by his execution
Never Look Up is a nightmarish world that casts a long shadow. For non-Americans, it’s scary, wonderfully funny and highly original, but the introduction of video and other tech means that it is designed to attract a younger, ethnically diverse crowd. Presumably this is why Devito has packed the show with friends, sidekicks and moonlighting band members and frat members, who liven things up more than once by falling over and breaking things, and zig-zagging into the audience. Their scenes pop up randomly, with little script justification, and for once I found myself wishing they had remained. The problem is that, despite what has, until now, been a strong conceit, Never Look Up occasionally veers off into parody, skidding past the need to evoke genuine terror into Silly Boring Humour. Debuting a show in the age of Ed Sheeran, however, and then flying the flag for street theatre is a difficult balancing act.
The show is a fierce, twitchy and wholly entertaining one, and worth repeating. By its final assault, it has dug its toes even deeper into the fundamental weaknesses of our social and political order.
• Until 28 March. Box office: 01273 448 1000. Venue: Ruskin Hall, University of Glasgow.