The Paradise Project is a sharply intelligent look at how we should live, what rules we need to put in place, and the consequences of following them. This co-production between Sheffield based Third Angel and the Portuguese company mala voadara demonstrates the necessity of rules, the impossibility of getting them right, and most importantly, the need to keep trying. Crucially for the audience, it is all done with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour that prevent it becoming a dry intellectual exercise.
A man and a woman are on a bare stage surrounded by an array of objects, including wood and bottles of water. They literally begin to construct a world around themselves – live flat-pack furniture assembly! – all the while discussing what rules they need to implement to make their world run smoothly and happily. The two actors in this incarnation of the play, Stacey Sampson and Jerry Killick, give the impression of an easy camaraderie matched with the ability to get under each other’s skin. I suspect there is a degree of competition in building the furniture; Sampson won on the day I saw it.
I’m usually ambivalent on devised pieces, which can give the impression that everyone’s favourite bit has had to be included whether it quite fits or not. Not in this case; instead, they seem to have used this method to pick the logical holes in every rule that is proposed, and identified every exception – they’d make a great IT project team! One set-piece, where a character decides that the best way to achieve equal say is to allocate each person an equal number of words, is handled so deftly that it almost appears it could work – before, inevitably, descending into farce. It is very funny, neatly skewering over-prescriptive solutions in an intellectually-rigorous way, while also containing comically-executed word play that The Two Ronnies would have been proud of.
What holds this back from being a truly great piece of theatre is that it engages only the brain. There is no sense of jeopardy if they get their project wrong, which makes it difficult to care what happens in the end. Possibly in an attempt to address this, the actors take it in turns to read accounts of failed attempts to build perfect societies, in which people have been damaged rather than achieving paradise. But these drily-recorded stories distance any risk.
All the same, this is a smart piece excellently staged, which is thought-provoking while retaining a good sense of humour. Well worth tramping up all those stairs at Summerhall.