Review: Joseph K, Gate Theatre

“It’s like a site-specific, interactive-type thing, isn’t it”

Joseph K is a modern retelling of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, where a man is arrested and subsequently persecuted by a faceless Authority despite never finding out what his purported crime is, moving the action to 21st century London. Tom Basden is the comedian and writer who has adapted it here at the Gate Theatre. It takes a look at the absurdities of the depersonalisation of modern life and particularly its dependency on technology, playing on all too recognisable fears about store loyalty card points going missing, mobile phones stop working, what photograph plucked from Facebook would be used as your mugshot and the trials of dealing with disinterested call-centre workers, but really centres on the powerlessness that can be felt when trying, and failing, to deal with a bureaucracy that does not (can not) listen.

Pip Carter is well cast as the initially bullish 30 year old banker whose arrogance when first arrested is slowly eroded as although he is ostensibly allowed to remain free, his life becomes one huge faceless bureaucratic nightmare with no answers and no-one to turn to. His nightmare is all-too-recognisable and Carter plays the strained communications and mounting desperation well as Joseph is forced to question the reality of what is happening to him as things take an increasingly surreal turn, yet remaining a brutal boss to his underling all the while. 

Yet despite everything, something just didn’t quite connect to elevate this to great theatre. The tone never quite progressed enough for me, the momentum never really generated to take it to the darker places suggested within. I felt this was mainly to do with the format of the show with its relatively short scenes, prolonged changeovers and, I suspect, a little self-indulgence in the writing process. Basden and regular collaborator Tim Key play a multitude of supporting characters in a dizzying array but the overall effect comes across mainly as playing to their own strengths as rapid-fire comedians and dominating the focus at the expense of our lead character. And along with ‘real’ actress Siân Brooke who fulfils a similar role, what should come across as a spiralling descent into increasingly nightmarish madness, plays more like a sketch show, it was just too disjointed for me to convince fully as drama. 

This is not to say that I didn’t find it funny, indeed some sections were hilarious, the dismissive Latin-speaking Bond-villain lawyer was excellent and the pops at radio shows were really well done. The performances were strong across the board, both Brooke and Carter really impressed me, and if nothing it was a scarily plausible premise that never felt so outlandish as to be that incredible. But something was awry in the balance for me, between the darkness and the surrealism and an ending which seemed to go in the face of the way the show was going. So ultimately more of a curiosity for me, than a must-see.

Running time: 90 minutes
Booking until 18th December

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