'Eureka Day' review – an incredibly funny satire of a modern conundrum

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

How do you weigh duty to yourself and your loved ones versus duty to the whole community? It’s a theoretical conundrum which became extremely concrete for us all during the pandemic, but it was an ongoing issue in the United States long before that – as Jonathan Spector’s sharply comic and fascinatingly prescient 2018 play, Eureka Day, attests. And, although aspects here do feel very specifically American, there’s also plenty of resonance in this slick European premiere.

The setting is a privileged private elementary school, the titular Eureka Day, in liberal Berkeley, California. Carina, a new African-American parent at the institution, is our point of entry into its earnestly progressive board meeting: an “open room” where decisions are made by consensus, not vote, and everyone’s “unique perspective” is valued.

In theory, anyway. In practice, Eli – a stay-at-home dad with a man-bun – constantly interrupts the women in the room, and the sanctimonious veterans tend to patronise Carina. But they speak the careful language of inclusion, using gender-neutral pronouns for the kids, explaining how a production of Peter Pan was too colonialist, and fretting over which ethnicities should be used in a dropdown registration form.

However, the delicious irony of Spector’s play is that when this group is faced with a real conundrum in which their individual decisions affect everyone, their performative respectfulness is exposed as a sham. That very modern crisis? A mumps outbreak, made worse by multiple parents refusing to get their children the MMR vaccine. The school is now in danger of closing after the health board orders that unvaccinated kids stay quarantined, and, naturally, its financial problems are exacerbated by a recent outsize spend on converting the bathrooms into all-gender.

There’s an oddly meta aspect to all of this: the Old Vic itself got into a row after promising more ladies’ loos during its refurbishment in 2019, then instead switching to gender-neutral ones. The theatre also made headlines when it decided to drop Terry Gilliam’s recent revival of Into the Woods because the director’s contentious comments apparently made some feel uncomfortable.

So, this is not just rich dramatic terrain, but bold programming from the Old Vic – and it’s amply rewarded. In this hugely engaging piece, Spector doesn’t set out to lecture, or to condemn. Although most of this particular audience likely supports vaccination, its benefits proven by scientific evidence, he gives sympathetic time to the doubters too. In fact, an emotional revelation in the second half almost tips the scales too far in favour of anti-vaxxers.

But above all, Eureka Day is incredibly funny. The first act closes with a disastrous virtual town hall meeting, in which the board’s woolly reassurances are completely drowned out by a sea of comments, projected onto the back wall. It’s the perfect encapsulation of how things spiral out of control online: the petty corrections, false claims, tangents, emojis, all-caps anger, shared links to conspiracy theory sites, and, of course, the inevitable reference to Nazis. It’s easily the most I’ve laughed in a theatre this year.

The dramatic side isn’t quite as effective – Spector develops the arguments more fully than the necessarily schematic characters – but a superb cast fills in the gaps. Oscar-winning Hollywood star Helen Hunt is the big name here, yet proves a generous company member. She effectively underplays her big monologue in the second half, and builds up a complex picture of a well-meaning, intelligent but fundamentally traumatised parent.

American actor Mark McKinney, also making his London theatre debut, is hilarious as the socks-and-sandals-wearing, folksy-wisdom-spouting, anxiously peace-making hippie Don. Ben Schnetzer is perfectly insufferable as the OTT woke ally Eli, who later unravels when he has to deal with a shattering tragedy, and Kirsten Foster likewise shines when her May is forced from complacent passivity to hysteria in the face of grim consequences.

But Susan Kelechi Watson, excellent as the watchful Carina, probably has the most interesting arc, growing in power, confidence and pragmatic ruthlessness as the occasion demands – and exposing systemetic prejudice along the way.

Katy Rudd’s crisp production is beautiful paced, and Rob Howell’s design has a neat double meaning. At first you take pleasure in its colourful stick-figure children all holding hands; later, it looks horribly like the swift transfer of infection in an unvaccinated community. And of course, all of this hits home post-Covid; terms like “herd immunity” are particularly charged.

But Spector’s play gets to the root of a deeper issue: our increasingly polarised world, in which arguments are based on feeling, not fact, and we become ever-more entrenched in our culture-wars tribes. The kind of utopian consensus proposed by the Eureka Day board now feels like a pipe dream. At least we can all agree that the Old Vic is supplying a brilliantly funny and cleverly thought-provoking response.

Eureka Day is at the Old Vic to 31 October. Book Eureka Day tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The cast of Eureka Day (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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