The second production from Moonchild – following their debut last year with PLUTO – is the darkly comic Coelacanth. Written by Callum O’Brien, the play is set in a dystopian future where assisted suicide is not only legal but available at the touch of a button through a new app that lets you select your killer.
It’s not immediately obvious that Yvette (Lizzie Back) has invited a man to her flat to end her life; she’s spent hours getting ready and appears to have everything to live for. Nor does Morningstar (Jack Michael Stacey), on first encounter, look like a killer, though there’s clearly something odd about their meeting, which veers from cheekily flirtatious to deadly serious and back again before you can say Sylvia Plath. And yet as he begins his preparations, which include allowing an excited Yvette to choose how she wants to die, we can see the line between business and pleasure gradually begin to blur – not just for Morningstar but for the hundreds of eager followers watching via webcam.
Everything’s going according to plan until the moment Yvette’s housemate Rachel (Rebecca Camilleri) bursts into the flat. Seemingly unperturbed by the presence of a strange man in her friend’s bedroom, and blissfully unaware of what she’s walked in on, she decides to keep the party going with an enthusiasm that borders on manic, and which begins to shake her friend’s resolve.
Quite apart from providing a good twist in the story, and some much-needed light relief and a change of pace just as things are getting particularly sinister, Rachel’s entrance is interesting because at first glance she appears much more likely to be suicidal than Yvette. She’s drunk, she’s obviously been crying, nobody turned up to her birthday party except the gay guy she once had sex with, and – for reasons that are unclear – she’s drinking rose out of a plastic bag. Seeing her, we get to marvel all over again at how calm and collected Yvette is, given what she’s about to do. It’s a powerful reminder that you can’t always tell what’s going on inside someone’s head, even if they look like they’re fine.
The story does get a bit muddled around the middle, though, and while we may accept that she’s not as fine as she looks, it’s never really explained what actually has brought Yvette to this point. There are signs that all is not well in the outside world, and a suggestion that the apocalypse may be near, but whether that’s real or only in Yvette’s head isn’t really made clear. It also seems odd, given the obvious affection between the two girls and Rachel’s disdain for the app and those who use it, that Yvette would choose her best friend’s birthday to kill herself, knowing that Rachel would almost certainly be the one to find her when she returned home. In an otherwise intriguing and very well performed plot, these unanswered questions about the central character’s motivation prove to be a significant stumbling block.
That said, what the play does do extremely well is to keep us on edge. This is partly because we’re waiting to see how this bizarre and unsettling chain of events will end; director Liz Bacon skilfully builds the tension as the story builds towards its dramatic climax. But it’s also in no small part because O’Brien forces us to confront some issues we’d perhaps rather not face up to: like how well we know our friends, our obsession with technology, our macabre fascination with tragedy, and the fact that just because something’s legal (and easy), that doesn’t make it right.
By the way, in case you were wondering, a Coelacanth is a rare type of fish that was thought to have died out 66 million years ago, but was rediscovered in the early 20th century off the coast of South Africa. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite that long for a revival of this play.