Arriving in Edinburgh with a clutch of National Student Drama Festival awards in tow, Lulu Raczka’s Nothing is the most assured of the year – longer than that, if you discount solo shows such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag last year. Not since 2010 – Anya Reiss’s Spur of the Moment at the Royal Court, London – has a first-time play felt so certain in both voice and intent.
Raczka uses eight interwoven monologues to paint a bleak picture of an atomised, introspective society – our atomised, introspective society. Her characters are self-absorbed, but self-loathing. One has been hailed a hero after intervening in a random attack on a bus, but self-identifies as a stalker, having alighted solely to follow an attractive stranger. Another leaves a house party and sees an assault victim lying bleeding but, rather than helping, just pauses to take in the view.
There’s so much cynicism here and so little feeling. No one cares for anyone else, but nor can any of the characters fathom the idea that no one cares for them. Instead, they pay therapists to listen – to feign interest. Cruelties are casual: the temp who takes to defecating on people’s doorsteps; the prankster who turns a best friend’s depression into a joke. And anxieties run deep: the porn addict with a taste for brutal images; the self-proclaimed “nobody” ashamed of being average. These anecdotes are bathetic and jokey, even as they encounter the horrific: child abuse, torture porn, random acts of violence.
Form helps enormously. Being self-contained, the monologues make up an atomised play, not unlike Simon Stephens’ Pornography. Graduate company Barrel Organ opts for an unstable production: any actor can play any character and speak at any time, in any order. It relishes the randomness of reconfiguration, leaving you scrabbling for connections. Anyone could be a best friend, a colleague or an attacker. All you find are thematic echoes, as stories glance off one another.
Patterns emerge bit by bit. That glib rant about voguish cupcakes, say, now seems like an indictment of an inherently antisocial society. It’s not that the misery is relentless and overbearing, rather that there’s a low-level hum of violence and depression, anomie and ennui throughout.
Smartly, director Alisdair Pidsley seats his cast among us, around an empty stage, so that they only declare themselves actors when they start speaking. It turns the theatre into a support group of sorts, and any one of us might be the next to share or confess. That leaves no room for escape: these troubled, jangling individuals are just like us.