Billed as “a complex and humane portrayal of a group of friends struggling to define themselves beyond the confines of their small town”, Flood, directed by Tristan Bates Theatre regular, Georgie Straight, finds its comedy in the literal and its drama in the symbolic. The literal flood in question overwhelms a small, unidentified town in the West Country, soaking basements, sweeping away centuries-old bridges, and putting cemeteries underwater. For protagonist Adam (Jon Tozzi) and his older sister Jess (Emily Céline Thomson), this deluge proves to be both a relief and a nightmare — their mother has recently died, and a flooded cemetery means having to postpone her funeral, for which the town and a handful of outsiders have shown up, but the monotonous task of hauling boxes up from the damp workroom offers some distraction. There to help is Michael (Nathan Coenen), Adam’s childhood friend and Jess’s partner who, as we’re quick to learn, isn’t the best at keeping secrets.
With a tormented protagonist who, “stranded on an island of nostalgia, whiskey bottle in hand”, complicates the lives of everyone around him and lurches into unsympathetic territory many times, Flood could have been self-indulgent and tedious in the wrong hands. Thankfully, the hands in this case belong to Tom Hartwell, a Mountview alumnus who is not only the playwright, but also acts as the seemingly squeaky clean antagonist, Ben. Arriving to pay his respects, Ben’s tendency towards manipulation and self-preservation wreaks further havoc on Adam’s already disintegrating life, when he tells a devastating lie about the reason why Adam’s ex-girlfriend Laura (Molly McGeachin) suddenly fled for the city years earlier. The power of secrets, as relevant here as in any Shakespearean tragedy, plays an important role in the plot, as Ben’s withholding of crucial information becomes the equivalent of withholding a lifeline from a drowning man. Set on a small stage, in a small town, and with a small cast of five, each character in Flood gets a surprisingly extensive arc that avoids the motivations and behaviour that we would expect to stem from their initial outlines.
Flood may not have an interval, but there is a definite fulcrum that splits the action in two: before the pub, and after the pub. Sheltering from the relentless rain, and in absence of a formally planned wake, Adam drunkenly and furiously makes a loud speech to everyone in the local haunt, unraveling in public, and revealing news about Jess and Michael with the kind of loose-lipped recklessness only a deluge of alcohol can bring on. He storms out into the flooded streets, leaving his sister, friends, and estranged acquaintances in confusion and fear. After the pub, we move to a church. Slumped alone against a candlelit font, Adam becomes his own confession box, delivering a soliloquy that took me by surprise with its profound sense of vulnerability and anguish.
Adam explains, to the imagined spirit of his mother, that bereavement is akin to drowning: in losing his mother he has literally lost his “rock” that, however damaged and unstable, was the only thing keeping him afloat in life. There is an additional implication that in losing the stability of his only remaining parent, Adam has also lost the cause to which he can attribute his addiction — without that, the only person left to blame, and the only one responsible for dealing with it, is himself. Knowledge of life beyond one’s small hometown is a burden, but the knowledge that, at some point, one must become self-reliant and self-sufficient, is a burden far more terrifying.
It is at this point in the play that the full richness of flooding as a metaphor comes to fruition. What Flood captures so well is the helpless dread that comes with watching childhood friends drift away by both accident and design when, on the cusp of bonafide adulthood, all a young person really wants is an anchor. Through Adam, Flood portrays the panic of your contemporaries seeming to have had a head start in “swimming to dry land and building new homes” while you, a lone existential straggler, are left behind in open water.
To explore the flooding symbolism even further, Adam succinctly covers the overwhelming anxiety that stems from societal expectations about what the ideal blueprint of a life looks like. As he rummages through boxes in the basement, he recites the steps with increasing agitation: move away, “get on the property ladder, get photo albums, fill those photo albums with children and fill those children with the same expectations”. Adam’s inability to get started on this conventional route to fulfillment leads to him drowning sorrows in alcohol, which results in him succumbing to addiction.
It should be clear by now that Flood neither shies away from truly bleak themes, nor handles them flippantly. Anxiety about how one’s life measures up to everyone else’s, compounded with heartbreak, addiction, bereavement and deception, can make someone like Adam deteriorate with alarming rapidity. In the world of Flood, suicidal ideation is not necessarily about moving from a content state of inaction to drastic action, or about moving further and further into a dark state of mind. As Adam implies, it is quite simply about being “tired of treading water”, and surrendering to death: the ultimate state of inaction.
Moving between nuanced tragedy and dark comedy, Flood explores other twenty-something anxieties with enough wit to lighten the mood, but enough gravity to make each moment memorable and authentic. In the middle of explaining how he’s traded in his wrecked first car from adolescence for a family carrier, Michael slips into a Don DeLillo-esque recital of the pitch for a Skoda Octavia, a terrific homage (whether intentional or not) to Steffie’s sleepy murmurings of “Toyota Celica” from White Noise. More grimly, Adam muses on the stark distance between what a newly bereaved person needs to hear, and the stock phrases of condolence they get in reality, nowadays predictably over a screen: the “sad face and heart emoji on a Facebook post in between Netflix episodes”. This is a poignant hint of what will later come pouring out during Adam’s soliloquy.
Much of this exploration of the broader anxieties of young people takes place when Adam and Michael first reminisce in the basement, sharing mutual memories of Freddos in a sweet shop and nights out at the local pubs, without lingering on them for too long. In fact, the significance of the characters’ collective pasts lies not in the era-specific details, but in the comfort of routine and close proximity. To wander briefly down a Biblical path, childhood in Flood is treated as a prelapsarian time during which one’s friends are within immediate reach. The lapsarian moment occurs when these friends gain knowledge of better prospects existing elsewhere, leaving the not-so-coincidentally named Adam vulnerable to being exiled from his youthful Eden. Take this metaphor a step further, and the initial setting of Flood becomes genuinely antediluvian: the pain of Adam and Jess’s mother’s death, Adam’s alcoholism, and a whole host of other suppressed fears and insecurities, all add up to a period of despair that is long overdue to be purged by a literal and metaphorical flood.
Speaking of the flood itself, I must mention those elements of the play beyond the script and the actors. The mark of great sound design is often measured by how little the audience notices it — sound effects should enhance the story without distracting from it. But when the story in question revolves around a flood, it is fitting that Benjamin Winter’s recurring use of rain patter, to varying degrees of intensity and volume, dares to draw attention to itself. At the most appropriate moments – a solemn silence, a scene transition – the susurrating sound of rain is atmospheric, lush, and almost trance-inducing.
By contrast, Ali Hunter’s lighting design keeps things fresh and elicits moments of comic relief with sporadic, exasperated sighs of “for fuck’s sake” from Adam and Jess when, in the opening basement scenes, the lights are constantly shutting off, necessitating a trip to the upstairs circuit box and a consequent shift in each scene’s pace. A final credit is due to Oscar Selfridge (recently a set carpenter at the National Theatre for Angels in America and Salome) for his clever use of props: chairs and tables are sliced in half and planted at odd angles into the floor for a simple but effective picture of how extensive the water damage is, and a single tool board, table, candle, or painting is enough to concoct a whole range of interiors.
Overall, this West Country mélange of symbolism is a thoroughly excellent execution of a relatable and reflective idea and, with the many secrets these characters keep from one another, would likely reward repeat viewings. I hope that the Tristan Bates Theatre will not be the last venue to host Flood, and that we can look forward to more compelling new writing from the bright young minds behind Paper Creatures.
 DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York (Viking): 1985.. Reprinted by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in 2011.