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Review: No God Down Here

Part of the MIFTAS season by the University of Manchester Drama Society, this play is an exhilarating exploration of the human psyche on a knife edge

By

 

“I hope you will never have to go through what we went through” are the haunting words that resonate through the crowd near the end of this brutally intense play. Indeed, the play strips humanity to its very essence, questioning the value of human life and whether we truly are self-serving creatures or not. As I departed the theatre for my civilised, regular life, the horrific manifestations of life backed into a corner haunted me all the way home.

When a submarine malfunctions near the bottom of the Mariana sea trench, the crew, all handpicked experts in their field, realise with a dawning terror that the only solution (a phrase used ominously throughout the play for its futility) to reaching the surface and launching a distress signal is for two of the seven members of the crew to die, leaving the remaining five with enough oxygen to reach the surface. The crew, foolishly or not decide that drawing straws is unfair and that this most traumatic of decisions must be made amongst themselves.

This philosophical and moral dilemma is what underpins the play and creates some gut-wrenchingly brutal scenes as the crew prepare to stake their claim to remain alive. The question the play tackles is simply how much is another human life worth compared to your own?

What lends weight to this situation as it builds to its climax is the chance the play gives for each character to flesh themselves out and implore the audience to begin to sympathise with them, just as they hope their fellow crewmates will do, despite being in the role of judge, jury, and executioner. At the helm is the craggy, experienced yet ageing captain Hannigan (Jack Waterman) who must keep order amongst the chaos while also overseeing the fatal decision. His crew consists of a ragtag bunch including the sensitive but out of his depth family man cook Spencer (Charlie White), the feisty engineer with a guilty conscience Nichol (Catherine Cranfield), the adept but nervous communications officer Benson (Marina Jenkins) and the young & willing deckhand Briscoe (Jess Adams).

All the crew members had distinct personalities and were all brilliantly acted, but my personal favourite was Georgia Brown as Elizabeth Cage, the ice-cold second-in-command whose steely logic leaves no room for mercy in this game of life and death. She is counterpoised well with medic Williams (Sophie Crawford) whose compassionate nature, while admirable in any normal setting is perhaps dangerous in this situation of highest stakes.

I shan’t spoil the outcome, but the scene in which the crew enact their perverse job interview — each word bringing them closer to death or life — is excruciating. The despair on each of the crew’s faces at the understanding that any moral framework they possess must be abandoned if they want to survive, is straight out of a quality horror movie. Friendships dissolve in the face of imminent death and emotions erupt violently. This period of the play really was discomfiting; I could feel the walls of the theatre closing in and I began to join in with this grisly game going on stage, coolly weighing up each cabin member’s usefulness in my mind and dispatching them accordingly.

However, as the oxygen steadily seeps out of the doomed vessel, so does the momentum of the play. Once the pivotal scene concludes and the tension is relieved somewhat, the play struggles to find a natural way to conclude this affair, and begins to descend slightly into cliché, with the tone becoming more of nostalgic resignation than of a tooth-and-nail fight for survival. However, I cannot think of a way in which that claustrophobia could have been continued at such a compelling rate, and so perhaps the slightly slower final section is just to be expected.

However, what remains strong throughout the play is the character driven arcs. Each crew member is nuanced and all evoke sympathy, making it unbearable to watch as you know some of them are inevitably doomed. Whether it be Benson’s homely ambitions or Briscoe’s hopeless optimism, there are reasons for each to live — there is no obvious ‘bad guy’. The play conjures up multiple ethical perspectives: is a human life worth more based on age difference? Or is the utilitarian approach the correct way — are you more useful for the preservation of the life of the rest of those around you? These are core moral dilemmas, and ones that the play does not skirt around. Little details such as the vid-logs and the use of technical submarine jargon lend authenticity to the setting, as well as a sparse and spooky ambient score echoing the isolation of the submarine crew. Also, it was refreshing to see a nearly all female crew, as portrayals of naval vessel crews have been largely male-dominated over the years.

Overall then, No God Down Here will crush you in its claustrophobic grasp and leave you a little more grateful than usual for the ease at which you can glide through the exit doors come the end of the performance. The play is being performed at the Kings Arms from the 8th–10th of March.

Writer director – Patch Middleton

Assistant director – Taiyo Yoshida

Producer – Sarah Jane Thoms

Music – Patch Middleton

Captain Hannigan – Jack Waterman

Joanne Nichol – Catherine Cranfield

Helen Williams – Sophie Crawford

Elizabeth Cage – Georgia Brown

Natasha Benson – Marina Jenkins

Alice Briscoe – Jess Adams

Alan Spencer – Charlie White