The Bush Theatre opens its new season in solid, rather than spectacular fashion, with the British premiere of American writer Annie Baker's gentle tragicomedy The Aliens. Behind a cafe somewhere in Vermont, most afternoons a couple of stoners in their early thirties climb over the gate and sit by the bins, smoking and chatting. Jasper (Mackenzie Crook) is a would-be novelist fixated with the poetry of Charles Bukowski; KJ's (a crazy-eyed, dreadlocked Ralf Little) main goal in life is to introduce magic mushrooms to all the major food groups. Initially afraid of them, 17-year-old Evan (Olly Alexander) is working at the cafe when he encounters them, and gradually gets drawn into their world as they reminisce over the things they never did, and watch the Fourth of July fireworks from an ironic distance (before getting much more moved by them than they'd like to admit.)
It's a gentle, slow-moving play (Baker's notes in the script demand that a third of the running time be made up of silence) and while not groundbreaking it's very cleverly put together, with some sly one-liners scattered about, and additional laughs from Little occasionally breaking into the surreal original songs by Michael Chernus, Patch Darragh and Erin Gann. But much of the humour and charm comes from the contrast between the characters, which veteran director Peter Gill has realised perfectly, and his cast deliver - although all three are excellent, it's the fact that his character is so different from the other two that means Alexander's shy, stuttering Evan gets many of the laughs. Dialect coach Marie Howland has also done a good job with getting all three to deliver pretty consistent American accents. Regular Bush designer Lucy Osborne has gone for a fairly immersive, in-the-round set which helps bring us into the world of a couple of people we might not want to meet in real life, but who provide a diverting and sometimes moving night at the theatre, albeit a rather subdued one.
As happens occasionally, I was at a performance that was followed by a Q&A (which took a while to get started because, and I quote, "it takes a long time to get Ralf's dreads off.") This was an entertaining Q&A rather than a hugely illuminating one, with Crook coming across quite reserved and Alexander visibly nervous, the more gregarious Little had to do much of the talking. We did learn that, in a less dangerous but somewhat geekier addiction than their characters, the actors had become collectively hooked on crosswords, and in the middle of his big breakdown scene at a recent performance, Little had had to try not to get distracted by suddenly getting a clue he'd been puzzling over. Officially the Q&A was just with the cast but Gill was also present and interjected a couple of times with anecdotes about his rehearsal process. Interesting if not entirely surprising was the only major point of disagreement between him and the playwright (who was present for rehearsals but has had to go back to the US,) namely Gill's refusal to adhere to the very strict rules Baker sets down about exactly how many seconds each pause has to last, and at which precise syllable one character has to cut in over another one's speech. As Gill says, dialogue can sometimes be like music, but it isn't music and can't be held to strict time and metre in the same way. A nice little extra to the evening, in any case.
The Aliens by Annie Baker is booking until the 16th of October at the Bush Theatre.