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‘Painkiller’ Review – a gripping and intense new drama

Photo by Becky Payne.

Roar writer Phoebe Smart reviews Sophie Ellerby’s “Painkiller”, a testament to the exciting potential of local theatre, directed by Toby Clarke and performed by the Stratford East Young Company.

Set in an alternative modern day in which the country is in the midst of a devastating nuclear war, acclaimed playwright Sophie Ellerby’s new production “Painkiller” is ambitious, to say the least. Yet, what strikes me the most about “Painkiller” is not its apocalyptic theme, but its refreshing and admirable sense of nuance and humanity.

Staging a science fiction war play with one set and very limited props may initially seem like a strange choice from a director, but in the case of “Painkiller,” it definitely works. The play tells the story of five young soldiers who find themselves test subjects for a new drug which eliminates pain, with most of the action taking place within a single test facility. A testament to Ellerby’s writing, and the talent of the Stratford East Young Company, “Painkiller” remains gripping and intense throughout despite the limited set. Brilliantly staged episodic scenes drive the action forward, and the stark set design and use of lighting ensure a consistent feeling of tension and claustrophobia. Despite its apocalyptic themes and futuristic motifs, “Painkiller”, at its heart, is a play about people; the choice to limit the action to a single room is a genius way to put humanity under the microscope. Pushed to the limit in a windowless cell, the characters clash, fight, and debate ideas about ethics, religion, and science.

Photo by Becky Payne.

At times, however, the number of themes the play attempts to tackle seems overwhelming, as many of these themes couldn’t be fully realised within the performance time. At times I couldn’t help but think more attention should have been paid to the theme of “pain”, which the title would suggest.

Within the intensity of the play, there are moments of genuine humour executed brilliantly by the actors. It is easy to forget at times that the play is being performed by a youth company. David Olaniregun’s comic acting stood out in particular.

With all that said, I want to continue exploring what I perhaps found most admirable about “Painkiller” – the depiction of humanity and nuance. Unlike its dystopian predecessors such as “Brave New World” or “Nineteen Eighty Four”, “Painkiller” does not depict a morally black and white world, a world where the oppressed fight against an all-powerful and corrupt government, but a chaotic and morally ambiguous one, where the rule makers are just as ‘human’ as their victims. It depicts how easily things can go wrong in society, and is all the more impactful for it.

Overall, “Painkiller” is an exciting and refreshing play, exploring the implications of being human in an increasingly inhuman and technological world, and is well worth the £8 ticket.

“Painkiller” played at the Theatre Royal Stratford East from 28 July to 30 July. You can look at some more productions from the Theatre Royal Stratford East here

Comparative Literature at Kings College London

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