Packed full of explosions, giant inflatables and honest-to-goodness tanks, Rory Mullarkey's apocalyptic exploration of Britishness and crisis is like literally nothing else you'll see at the theatre this summer. In a good way? Oh, I wish I could say yes.
'Pity' sprawls across a kind of uncannily perfect village green. The grass is too bright, the brass band is too loud, and the ice cream stall looks like a Sylvanian Families toy made huge. It's not the kind of place where bad things happen. Until they do, all at once, in a relentless scroll of lightning strikes, random explosions, civil war, plague. Its ensemble cast stumble through each fresh misfortune like kids who can barely remember their lines in a nightmarish school assembly: gesturing in damp-fisted horror or uttering contorted tangles of platitudes. When someone dies, they parade off the stage to the strains of a brass band funeral march.
The only real constants are Daughter and Person, two characters who slip into a warp-speed romance, and then navigate the chaos together. Mullarkey’s dialogue is periodically very, very funny - he repeats bland phrases until they become baffling, and lets non-sequiturs hang enticingly in the smoke-filled air. It's a play with an allegorical feel, which means it's far from having a single message - but put roughly, it's a kind of comment on how hopeless our attempts, as twee polite British people, to make sense of the world's capacity to disintegrate without warning into screaming, bloody mayhem.
But Sam Pritchard's production doesn't always land Mullarkey's laughs. It feels slow, often uncomfortably so, thanks to the cast’s ponderous monotone delivery. It's full of valiant attempts to subvert the Royal Court's auditorium as a space (a raffle, a chance to come on stage and get an ice cream) but the auditorium puts up a pretty good fight: the end-on format means that the immersive elements don't exactly spill off the stage. Meanwhile Chloe Lamford's box-of-tricks design is both ridiculously good fun and kind of jarring, sinking the text under hyperactive flourish after flourish.
Mullarkey is a playwright who's had a lot of not-wholly-successful shots at major theatre shows (and more than any female playwright could put her name to and still receive juicy commissions). He did ‘Wolf from the Door’ at the Royal Court in 2014, followed by ‘St George and the Dragon’ at the National Theatre last year. Moments of ‘Pity’ made it crystal clear why he keeps landing these huge gigs, like his brilliant riff on all the absurd critiques of millennials that litter the pages of broadsheet newspapers, or a heartbreakingly bewildered narrative of loss from Sal the Postwoman.
Ultimately, though, it’s more frustrating than likeable. The intentionally flat tone is pretty much unbroken, with barely a moment to shock you out of information-overload complacency. And its openness to interpretation means that it's hard to work out all this stuff and mess is actually for. It comes closest to being a satire on people’s narrow, paternalistic attitudes to foreign countries in crisis, as realised in an excellent moment where a visiting celebrity is devoured alive. But for the most part, it just feels glib – a tossed off comment on real-life atrocities.