Caroline Horton, Simon Startin and John Biddle
Caroline Horton's visceral but ineffectual satire on tax havens
This review is of 'Islands's run at London's Bush Theatre in January
There’s a scene deep, deep into Caroline Horton’s rambling satirical cabaret ‘Islands’ where it all actually comes together. The credit crunch has just ravaged the show’s lurid allegorical world, and the giggling, grotesque super-rich – led by Horton’s Mammon-like Mary – have just received a bollocking from the powers that be. They promise to be good, to be responsible from now on… then cautiously Mary suggests they might have some plain scones to celebrate. They look around warily. Nobody stops them. So they order some jam. Nobody stops them. Then some cream. Nobody stops them. Then some champagne. Then caviar. Then a taxi. Then a private jet. Then a holiday to Ibiza. Then Miami. By now they’re cackling and screeching and whooping in delirium, laughing like children who’ve just found out that Santa Claus is in fact real. It’s not the subtlest allegory for how the super-rich have bounced back while our wages have stagnated. But it is a tremendously powerful one.
Would that the rest of ‘Islands’ had anything like its vivid kick. Horton is a mercurial and talented theatre maker, whose last show ‘Mess’ – a poignant comedy about anorexia – verged on genius. ‘Islands’ is a total change of tack, a satire on the phenomena of tax havens, in which Mary’s mega-wealthy posse live on a floating island called Haven, adrift from the concerns of the world below – which they call Shitworld.
So far so agit prop, but Horton’s decision to present the whole thing as an indulgently absurdist cabaret completely blunts the message. It’s a grinding mass of allegorical skits running the gamut from crass to bewildering, in which Horton’s Mary puts Adam (Simon Startin) and Eve (Hannah Ringham) through a series of obtuse scatological torments because, er, that’s the sort of thing the super rich do, I guess.
The frustration of ‘Islands’ is that it opens a week after BBC2’s lucid, angry Super Rich season. It could have been incredibly timely, but other than ‘tax havens are full of arseholes who hate us’ – which we already knew – it doesn’t have anything to say about its given subject, far more in love with its medium than its message. Genuinely impressive performances and a much stronger final third mean it’s not a dead loss, and in fact I’d kind of warmed to it by the end. But it’s not good satire, and next to the brilliant ‘Mess’ it is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess.