One of Stan's Cafe's company mantras is that you should never tell someone what to think in a piece of theatre. However, this production should come with a warning. This isn't a 'proper' play. It's performance art and it certainly won't be for everyone.

Stan’s Café have a strong reputation for creating theatre that pushes boundaries and preconceptions. However, it’s important to judge a piece on its own merit and put their celebrated reputation aside. A production shouldn’t need context or explaining beforehand in order to be successful and The Capital takes their exploration of performance too far. As a new but not misinformed audience member, I wasn’t expecting to sit through a piece of naturalism, but it was baffling to see so many members of the audience whooping and cheering at the end of this, at times, self-indulgent production.

The production is set on twin travelators and sets out to explore the assertion that “economic inequality is the single biggest challenge facing the world today.” – something that the creative team of Craig Stephens and James Yarker pondered after speaking to top economists at Warwick University. This is, obviously, an ambitious subject to tackle. But the piece begins with numerous plastic chairs being placed on the travelators in a sequence which was around ten minutes long but seemed to drag on for eternity. Whilst it’s clear that they are asking the audience to find their own meaning in this section, the point of it totally escaped me. It’s a big ask for an audience to sit through an opening sequence like that for so long and; with any clever intended double meaning aside, it feels like a waste of time and a missed opportunity right up until the actors enter the stage. If your attention isn’t grabbed in an opening sequence, then it’s very difficult to get it back again and this sets the tone for the rest of the play.

With a series of different scenes, the travelators take you from schools and shops to the mean streets of the titular The Capital, a fictional metropolis. This very niche method of storytelling is a massive endurance test for the performers, who manage to skilfully convey all of these different scenarios and portray hundreds of characters without uttering a single word. However, without a thread to tie them all together, it’s very difficult to see the point in The Capital. In the play’s programme, Yarker states that “The Capital is full of stories, but we never see any from beginning to end, except our own.” However, it’s hard not to feel unsatisfied that everything is left totally open to interpretation and the piece would have far more resonance if they focused on trying to bring something together. Instead, it falls flat and seems like they failed to come to any kind of conclusion during their devising process.

Part of their justification for their choices is that in a city we only ever see tiny snapshots of the lives that people lead, but in reality, it just makes the play confusing and unsatisfying. It would be far more poignant if the connections between these characters were explored properly and resolved, rather than left loose and ambiguous. As a side note, massive kudos has to be given to the stage management team for gathering together the sheer amount of bits and bobs the play needs.

While it’s important to support theatre challenging preconceptions and pushing the boundaries of performance, ‘The Capital’ really does feel like a dramatic version of hit game show ‘The Generation Game’, but, sadly, without a prize or Bruce Forsyth at the end. There is no resolution or finale to speak of, and while this is what Stan’s Café intended, it’s very difficult to take anything profound away from the production. Nevertheless, if you want to see an explorative performance piece then you will probably cheer, hurrah and celebrate how clever and ‘different’ it is. It all depends on why you go to the theatre and what you want to get out of it but they’ve missed a great chance to create a more inclusive piece that forces audiences to think about inequality in a different way.

Simply stating that ‘not everyone will get it’ sits uncomfortably and it feels as if Stans Café are trying to be exclusive to the theatre elite. It’s as if they’re saying “if your brain isn’t big enough then don’t come and see us”. This attitude is particularly troubling at a time when companies should be focussing on creating work that speaks to more people, not less, and this piece’s lack of accessibility was exemplified by the numerous walkouts that occurred on press night.  The Capital is successful in highlighting inequality, but regrettably, it’s limited to the context of the theatre world itself. Unfortunately, this show is a prime example of the snobbery and elitism that endures and Stan’s Cafe have somewhat added to this by excessively breaking down the boundaries of performance.

★☆☆☆☆

The Capital is touring the UK in Spring 2019. For more information, visit Stan’s Cafe‘s website.