Eureka Day review: this anti-woke satire is exactly what the Old Vic needed

Kirsten Foster, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mark McKinney and Helen Hunt in Eureka Day - Manuel Harlan
Kirsten Foster, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mark McKinney and Helen Hunt in Eureka Day - Manuel Harlan

Eureka! Have they got it? Is our theatre finally awake to the ludicrous – and also pernicious – side of woke? To me, it feels like a turning-point that the Old Vic has ushered on to its stage Eureka Day, Jonathan Spector’s very sharp, very droll satire on the duplicities and deficiencies of progressive group-think – first seen in the States in 2017.

Having last year forced Terry Gilliam’s production of Into the Woods out, on the say-so of those concerned about keeping the building a “safe space”, it’s worth a loud cheer to see the venue recover its wits via a demolition-job of phoney inclusivity, where diversity is championed but free-thinking, even rationality, proves problematic.

It’s further heartening to see Hollywood actress Helen Hunt make her stage debut here by coaxing rich comedy from a humourless character – lots of faux-meaningful stares and self-contained impassivity. This anti-heroine’s anti-vaxxer leanings roar to the fore amid a mumps outbreak at the private elementary school whose executive board she sits on.

The opening scene is a glorious distillation of wishy-washiness as we eavesdrop on a board-meeting at Eureka Day school, in West Coast Berkeley, in which old hands, Hunt’s Suzanne among them, welcome another parent, Susan Kelechi Watson’s Carina, with platitudes of the “everyone should feel seen” variety. Here, amid bean-bags and tiny chairs, they angst over the admissions list of identity categories.

They fumble to a consensus, because “a community of respect” is what they’re after – here, where the bathrooms are being refitted to a gender-neutral spec, everyone must use gender-neutral pronouns and even the doughnuts are impeccably sourced. But the sense that Carina, notably African-American, isn’t fully on-board sharpens when a further meeting, to discuss the mumps outbreak, finds Suzanne trying to over-ride health authority advice on the basis that parents be left to choose vaccination options.

The social justice posturing of inclusivity is shredded by incompatible positions and in a Mamet-like way, Spector turns the vocabulary of “No, no, yeahs” into the rat-a-tat of weaponised niceness. The growing stand-off between the two women – with Mark McKinney wonderful as a fraying hippy futilely attempting mediation – at least retains civility. In a cryingly funny scene the board are upstaged by the vicious virtual shouting-match that engulfs the parental forum they’re attempting to host in parallel; typed backchat and barbs interspersed with apt emoticons fast-scroll up the back-wall of Rob Howell’s whizzy set (gold stars too for director Katy Rudd, who doesn’t miss a beat).

Though the evening moves from primary colour, almost crayon-crude, mirth in the first half to something more subtly, and emotionally, shaded in the second, the dramatic stakes for those involved don’t carry quite the requisite heft. That’s partly I think, oddly enough, because we’re so close to the vaccine debate; Spector has been hailed as prescient, on account of the pandemic, but MMR wrangles – though to some a life and death issue – can’t fully convey the traumatic pain that Covid caused.

Perhaps I’m niggling in a way that reveals infection by the rampant mental nit-picking on stage. The parental quintet, and plot, is finely completed by Ben Schnetzer’s Eli, a mansplaining bed-hopper, and Kirsten Foster’s May, his fling that goes wrong, leading to a climactic monologue of transfixing hysteria from her. They’re in a hit and know it.

Until Oct 31. Tickets: 0344 871 7628; oldvictheatre.com