Rarely does the crunch of gravel under foot greet the audience as they enter an auditorium. But at the Bush theatre you are never sure exactly which auditorium you will walk into, so often is it reinvented.
For The Aliens, American playwright Annie Baker’s London debut, designer Lucy Osborne has transformed the intimate space into the back yard of a Vermont coffee shop; gravel-strewn floor, discarded crates and two disregarded chairs on which the play’s central characters sit, passing away their days and nights.
Jasper (Mackenzie Crook) and KJ (Ralf Little) have little to show for their 30 years of life. They have dreams of creative fulfillment, writing songs and novels, but no success to show for their endeavours. In the cocoon of their refuge from the real world, they are safe from the danger of taking risks and failing. They can exist without fear that the American dream will let them down.
When young waiter Evan – delightfully imbued with twitching, stuttering nervous energy by Olly Alexander – stumbles across the pair, he is slowly, magnetically drawn into their world, whether he likes it or not.
Amid Baker’s peaceful, still tale, in which not a lot happens on stage, is a story of friendship, unfulfilled ambition, a generation discarded and hidden away and a coming of age. Like a sugared Americano bought from the play’s coffee shop, the piece has a surface sweetness but a darker, more bitter, lasting taste.
The growing friendship between the three characters is simple and touching, with the eternal optimism of Little’s spaced-out, sometimes dead-eyed KJ leaving the audience smiling. But Crook’s Jasper does not know how to deal with emotion and there is a deep sadness that these ripped jean-wearing, self-medicating dreamers have nowhere and no way to exist in the real world.
Peter Gill directs the piece at a walking pace which is fitting for a play about characters going nowhere fast. In 2010, they are no longer waiting for Godot, now they are just waiting.