Dissecting the concept of Utopia, even on the surface, seems a tangled, weighty and complex task. The variables and specifications alone could have made the Soho Theatre’s production last an eternity. The spritely production is a collaborative effort from no less than nine writers including comedy stars, playwrights and practitioners, among them Dylan Moran, Michael Chaplin and Zoe Coopers. The vision of the esteemed creators is unified: a boisterous, often glib, sketchshow-esque bounce around the array of opinions and theorems on the elusive concept of utopia.
Six cast members employ song, dance, clowning and acting as they shuffle furniture around a default set with a blueprint motif. There are outlines for differing approaches to idyllic worlds that are short-lived and filled with kinks and disgruntlements. There’s seldom a dull moment and the quick-changes maintain an agreeable pace. Utopia is a series of skits introduced via quotes from philosophers, artistic luminaries and Lady Gaga. Each titbit is a thoughtful pause before the comedy begins.
It is often unclear what each scenario proposes as the crucial element of peaceful human cohabitation and structural perfection. The serialised encounters show that the best and worst of humanity is everyday occurrences of personal and global impact. An over-50 living life after an autumnal divorce goes through the motions at her ‘menopause in lycra’ Zumba class, and dinner party guests perform mendacious monologues behind the veneer of faux laughs, smiles and concealed intolerance.
All the mini-episodes had a lilt of surrealism and took a droll, sardonic look at life itself. Take, for example, the Kony-reminiscent leader of a child soldier camp, redeemed by the influence of a Facebook activism campaign. There’s also the stand-up comedian beginning a residency in Utopia itself – only to find that comedy is borne from sorrow (according to Amelia Burr) - therefore humour is non existent in the perfect world. ‘Humanity’ - the intergalactic game show - is another highlight, where three humans are beamed into a galaxy of superior intelligence to be observed and mocked.
The allegories seem almost too transparent and the observational mirrors crass, but Utopia is staged scintillatingly, with a fully committed ensemble capable of physical comedy and the occasional morose moment. In clown make-up, wigs and silly outfits, they successfully build a utopia before dismantling it.
The strength of the script lies in its thoroughly earnest nature. Utopia is straightforward and not erudite (at least on the surface), yet not without merit of inviting an audience to contemplate. Sentimentality is touched upon and played on because it is true and relatable, not contrived to tug on our heartstrings. By virtue of this, poignancy and touching, warming moments are organically created.
The simulation of the worlds in Utopia provided a constant source of entertainment. The production was a frenzy of ideas and a multi-character exploit. It holds attention through traditional storytelling and experimental projections and dance choreography. It mightn’t have the democratising credentials of the philosophical epochs sampled throughout, but offers a jovial foray into the intangible utopia.