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‘Eureka Day’ review

  • Theatre, Comedy
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Eureka Day, Old Vic, 2022, Helen Hunt
Photp by Manuel HarlanBen Schnetzer, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mark McKinney, Helen Hunt and Kirsten Foster
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Helen Hunt is excellent in this smart US comedy about a liberal schoolboard that collapses into infighting over a vaccine mandate

At first glance it feels staggering that Jonathan Spector’s comedy about a hyper-liberal American school that goes into meltdown over mandatory vaccination dates from 2018, ie well before the pandemic. 

On reflection, though, ‘Eureka Day’ isn’t so much prophetic as perceptive. I remember reading articles about the increase of vaccine hesitancy in the West long before Covid-19 was a twinkle in a pangolin’s eye. It just seems vastly more significant now. And in fact, Spector’s play is not so much *about* vaccine hesitancy; rather it uses it as a device to launch a damning attack on ivory-towered West Coast liberalism. 

The play follows the shenanigans of the well-meaning but catastrophic board of Eureka Day, an expensive primary school in Berkley, California (where the play premiered)l. 

Led by Mark McKinney’s bumbling, beshorted old hippie Don, and Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt as the seemingly calming old hand Suzanne, the board’s extreme devotion to respecting the personal and political beliefs of every single pupil and parent they represent has just about held together up to this point. But their total aversion to offending anyone brings the school into a state of paralysis when a mumps outbreak hits on the day the board’s newest and most normal member Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson) joins. 

The local government shuts the school temporarily. It can reopen, but must suspend teaching for children who’ve not had the MMR jab. However, there’s a significant minority of antivax parents who get further hot under the collar at the idea of the pricey school reopening without their children attending. And Suzanne unexpectedly sides with them: as board decisions are required to be unanimous, the school stays closed.

It’s a funny play, with a crack cast of largely US talent. The show’s funniest scene – and honestly, as funny a scene as you’ll see in the theatre all year – follows the board’s disastrous attempt to hold an online meeting, which rapidly degenerates into a profane slanging match between pro and antivax parents in the (projected) comments. It’s hysterical, and also relatable, entirely foreshadowing the foibles of Zoom. 

Though it starts fairly shallow, the play gains in depth. After a lowkey first half, Hunt absolutely storms the scene in which Suzanne reveals why she holds antivax views: it’s perhaps a bit naff of Spector to give her beliefs a sensitive origin story (which I won’t spoil) but it’s a pitch-perfect performance from Hunt, the agonising contradictions of a genuinely decent person who has embraced a harmful, irrational belief – we can’t forgive Suzanne but we can’t condemn her.

Enjoyable as Katy Rudd’s production is, though, I found ‘Eureka Day’ a slightly frustrating watch. Put simply, it’s a West Coast US play satirising West Coast US attitudes. I’m sure somebody coming from further to the right than me might see it as a satire on liberalism generally, and they’d not be entirely wrong. But I just found Don et al’s attitudes so absurd – and the set-up so distant from how the British schooling and class system works – that as something of a classic liberal myself I felt totally let off the hook. Look at these ridiculous Americans, doing ridiculous American stuff!

That’s not to say that this should invalidate it to a UK audience. But I think giving a play that last ran at the 74-seat Walkerspace in New York a starstudded new production in the 1,067-seat Old Vic somewhat overexposes it.

 ‘Eureka Day’ is just lacking a bit of the heft and muscle it needs to really storm this stage. Spector doesn’t have the ruthlessness of, say Bruce Norris: nobody does anything irredeemable, everyone is kind of let off the hook by the end. It’s a funny play, and a perceptive play, but it’s not a daring play. 

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

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Price:
£10-£65. Runs 2hr
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