A quick synopsis of Rebecca Manson Jones' adaptation of Ibsen's Enemy of the People might make it sound like an exercise in gimmickry: relocate the action to a contemporary British setting. Tick. Change the cause of dispute to the trendy topic of ethical trading. Tick. Switch the gender of the lead character from male to female. Tick. Have the cast interract with the audience before the performance and during the interval. Tick. Plant cast members in the audience. Tick. Ask the audience to enter the piece themselves by voting. Tick. Offer alternative endings to the play according to their decision. Tick. And yet remarkably it mostly works.
In large part this is due to a smart script that pitches the audience into a domestic setting ripe with familial gossip and bickering, while maintaining the beats of Ibsen's original. Dr Stockmann (Sarah Malin) has returned home to the small Cornish seaside resort of Porth Kregg with an ambitious plan to build a Health Spa with an ethical business model. With the backing of her brother the Mayor (Rupert Holliday Evans) and the local cooperative the investment contract is won, only for the Doctor to realise that to secure the funding her brother has betrayed her ethical premise by sourcing palm oil for the spa from exactly the kind of suppliers she opposes. Her desire to reveal her brother's cynical compromise is however met with fierce resistance by locals who see their financial future as bound to the project. Matters finally come to a head at a hastily called town meeting.
This somewhat po-faced dilemma is leavened by naturalistic performances (Malin is excellent throughout, Matt Ray Brown as her slightly baffled husband gives a performance of gentle charm and Elizabeth Elvin lends excellent comic support) and by intelligent writing which evades dogma to show characters that if not wholly realised, are at least plausibly human. The subplots too are in a minor but grounded key.
This careful groundwork is rewarded when the action takes off after the interval as the audience are plunged into the midst of a town meeting. With some characters delivering addresses from the stage while others, including new voices, heckle from the auditorium. The discussion carries a genuine charge particularly when Malin seizes the opportunity to let rip. The audience vote along with the cast and the final act depends on their result.
Without anything to risk audiences will probably find the road to the moral high ground unnaturally easy. The conclusion I saw (and that I suspect will finish most performances) is even further removed from Ibsen's original. Nevertheless the conceit of a prolepsis at this point is again a choice striking only let down by a surfeit of storytelling at the expense of dramatic action (an argument is reported that really should be shown and at least one character is dispensed with in a slightly offhand way).
If Manson Jones' instincts on the page are largely impeccable, her direction is sadly somewhat stodgy and the production is also slightly let down by an uninspiring set and lighting (though one feels the odd dimensions of the New Diorama Theatre are somewhat to blame for the latter). There's also a feeling that a few cast members are staying within their comfort zones while the decision to try to force interractions in the foyer before the performance and during the interval are more uncomfortable than engaging.
Even so this is challenging and engaging theatre. As my decision teeters on what feels a natural 3.5 stars, in the spirit of the production – given that the director very kindly bought me a drink during the interval – I feel I should now acknowledge how my supposed integrity is really quite amenable to bribery, and slide this review up to an almost merited 4 stars...