Review: Contactless at The Hen and Chickens

Nothing sums up the British quite like our relationship with public transport. It’s a world full of unspoken rules, which we like, and we reserve the right to be furious – silently, because we’re British – when those rules are not observed. Because there’s no chance of escape, the most insignificant moment becomes a massive deal, whether it’s the person next to us having a loud phone conversation, the cute stranger opposite catching our eye for the briefest of seconds, or the agony of trying to figure out if someone’s pregnant or not.

These are all moments anyone who spends any time on the London Underground can relate to, and they make up the backdrop to Tom Hartwell’s new comedy, Contactless, which takes us inside the world of the Tube to meet annoying passengers, overenthusiastic station announcers and even the original voice of “Mind the Gap”, Peter Lodge. These characters appear in a series of sketches that take recognisable situations and stereotypes to comical extremes (one of my favourites was the night tube, where passengers are tucked in with a blanket and hot chocolate while the driver reluctantly reads them a bedtime story).

While these characters are familiar to us, they’re all fictional – but Contactless also draws on historical fact and current affairs in the development of its main plot threads. Besides Peter Lodge, the sound engineer who inadvertently became the voice of the Underground, we also meet Emma Clarke, the voiceover artist who eventually replaced him, only to be sacked for comments that appeared to criticise the Underground. Meanwhile, a hapless union rep tries to reach an agreement in the tube strikes over ticket office closures and night working, and Peter’s widow Susan – who still works at Embankment 30 years later – struggles to keep up in a constantly changing world of progress and technology.

Directed by Phil Croft and performed by a versatile cast of six (Adam Elliot, Rosie Edwards, Hannah Jay, Jeryl Burgess, Stanton Cambridge and Will Hartley), the show’s style is reminiscent of spoof documentaries like Twenty Twelve, affectionately poking fun at a British institution that we love to complain about, but also wouldn’t want any other way (I kept half expecting David Tennant’s voiceover to start). The scenes referencing the strikes, while undoubtedly some of the funniest, also make a sharp political point; as union rep Rachel faces off against an army of incompetent and – in one case – sleazy civil servants, there’s never any doubt whose side we’re meant to be on, even before the hilarious first date scene in which a striking tube driver hammers home the main points of their argument.

There’s a further case against progress for the sake of it in the story of Susan, an unexpectedly poignant diversion inspired in part by Margaret McCollum, the widow whose pleas saw her late husband’s voiceover reinstated at Embankment. Ultimately, Hartwell’s message seems to be that the Tube is about people far more than processes. Drivers, passengers, station staff and yes, even the voiceover guys and girls come together to form a tapestry that’s rich with comic potential, and makes this cherished British institution what it is, in a way iPads and driverless trains never will.

Contactless is at the Hen and Chickens until 3rd June.

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