Anthony Clark directs a new play by Hampstead theatre writer-in-residence Alexis Zegerman, which focuses on the human obsession with comparing ourselves to others.
Our universal fascination with the minutiae of ‘ordinary’ people’s lives has never been so indulged as it is now, as reality television allows us to dissect, comment on and leer at others from the comfort of our sofa. One of the first television programmes of its kind was Seven Up!, a social experiment which started in 1963 and put its participants’ lives on camera every seven years until the age of 49.
Based on this idea, Zegerman’s play looks at the impact of the programme on three of its participants – albeit fictional ones created by the playwright. Set in a backroom at the film studios where the programme’s subjects come together every seven years, Zegerman depicts the interaction between them away from the cameras, imagining how their participation in the series has shaped their lives.
The three characters in the play are clear, almost stereotypical, depictions of class. Alan (David Kennedy) is a working class boy done good. Over the years he has worked his way up from an East London market stall to owning his own underwear manufacturing company. Success, in his eyes, is owning a big TV and joining the local golf club. Catherine (Susannah Harker) is the posh totty whose mock-punk anarchist attitude at 21 dissolves, by 42, into a sedate, lonely marriage and motherhood. Tom (Jonny Weir) is a depressive nerd who had all the opportunities of his middle class, including a Cambridge education, only to collapse into a self-obsessed puddle of mental anguish.
What Zegerman attempts to discuss is whether these individuals would have ended up as they have without the programme, or whether the cameras have been intrinsic to the direction of their lives. In non-sequential order the play flits between different ages, from seven to 49, dipping in and out of the characters’ lives as they themselves question the consequences of being in the public eye every seven years. Comparing themselves to each other, and to their previous selves, they are each concerned with their perceived success in the eyes of the public. As Alan points out – and as is cruelly evident now in programmes such as Big Brother – the public prefers to watch someone fail than succeed.
Centring solely on these three characters, we never see the mysterious David, frequently spoken of by the trio, who is the series’ creator and director. Increasingly, the characters view him as an almost God-like parent figure, reminiscent of the shady creator of The Truman Show. He created their lives and, like the kids they were at seven, they still, at 49, seek his approval and guidance.
Though a comedy, Zegerman’s play is tinged with sadness, showing, as it does, that ideals and hopes are often suppressed by unhappiness and lack of fulfilment as we make our way through life. Luckily, for most of us, that is not revealed to the nation on camera.