Is happiness ever more than a state of mind? That's playwright Glenn Waldron's intriguing question with The Here and This and Now, which premieres in the Theatre Royal Plymouth's smaller space, the Drum. The journey to the answer takes a circuitous and fascinating route from a company "awayday" to a somewhat Orwellian glimpse of the future.
Meet Niall (Simon Darwen). Successful company man, he tells us he has provoked the anger of his boss by deciding to suddenly just take the day off to spend time with his son, Jack, who has recently been ill. He decides to take him to Diggerland. Never mind the appointments in the diary or the prospect of a soggy bacon sandwich at Gordano Services. Some things are more important right? His story sounds personal, compelling.
But there's more to this than meets the eye in Waldron's dark, clever and ultimately disturbing, comedy. Niall works for drug company McCabe and his mission is to persuade doctors to sign up for a product which is just 3.2 per cent more affordable than the current drug they prescribe. A meeting will just take five minutes of their time… Niall is running a training day to fine tune the McCabe sales pitch. To bond and believe. To play team games, to chant and throw balls. Pharmaceuticals are big business and this is serious stuff.
We soon realise that the very similar stories of Gemma (Jessica Clark), Robby (Andy Rush) and Helen (Becci Gemmell) aren't what they seem. Their monologues offer up fragments of their lives – a niece who is a One Direction fan, a nephew who loves Disney's Frozen and a daughter who has an accident – but they are a sliver of reality in what is just a sophisticated sales pitch. The anecdotes are designed to get a foot in the door.
Bob Bailey's stark, brutalist set underlines what a hard and calculating process it is. This is a bleak environment, starved of real emotion except for the connection (beautifully realised by the actors) between Robby and Gemma. It's a glimmer of hope in a barren landscape.
Waldron's first play, Forever House, debuted at the Drum in 2013. This, his second, coincides with the opening of a third, Natives, at Southwark Playhouse. In the Theatre Royal's artistic director Simon Stokes he has the experience needed to flesh it out The Here and This and Now maximum dramatic impact.
The first half of this one-act comedy plays for laughs. But it gets darker with an encounter six years later between Helen and Niall. In the intervening years a lot has happened and the tables are turned. Now Helen is the one with her finger on the powerpoint button.
The Here and This and Now is bleak in more ways than one. A poignant and chilling epilogue acts as a warning to us all and gives us plenty to think about long after the performance.
The Here and This and Now runs at Theatre Royal Plymouth until 25 March.