Southwark Playhouse – until 25 March 2023
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Joseph Charlton’s witty and incisive play portrays the evolution of a brilliant idea into a multi-billion-dollar ride-hailing app, laying bare the cut-throat and toxic workplaces and casualties as the money kept rolling in.
In a brisk 90 minutes, Charlton tells the story at breakneck speed, but even with a cast of three playing multiple roles, Katie-Ann McDonough’s slick and assured direction maintains clarity and tension. Hazel Low’s design, set in the round with a stylised table that matches the company logo works brilliantly with Annie May Fletcher’s sound design and Rachel Sampley’s lighting to represent boardrooms, cars and managing to infuse painful energy into the Vegas nightclub scenes.
The gripping story of development, global markets and stock market floatation unfolds from the point of view of the tech entrepreneur who came up with the idea for the app, a coder in the company’s London office, and a driver in Glasgow.
Shubham Saraf plays Tyler, the tech entrepreneur, overflowing with self-belief and ambition and willing to overlook the behaviour of his “brilliant jerks” – the men who get results and profits but go through life like entitled toddlers – and their frat-boy environments if it means he makes enough money to be a member of “the three comma club”. Saraf is frighteningly charismatic as Tyler, making you feel a little sorry for him when he loses control – until he shakes off this moment of honesty and recovers his bravado. Saraf also plays Craig, the manager (think millennial David Brent) of the London office where Sean (Sean Delaney) lands a coding job. Sean sees the ridiculous behaviour of the men in the team – calling him “Brother Sean” and meeting in the “dojo” – and the misogyny the women coders have to deal with. Sean goes along with the nonsense and becomes a go-between for the women, until one of the women betrays his trust and he experiences for himself exactly how heartless his workplace can be. Delaney’s quietly devastating performance is remarkable. Kiran Sonia Sawar plays Mia, a recovering addict who drives for the company in Glasgow. The driving is a lifeline for her – feeling all the energy that enters her cab, but the danger and temptation to take something are always there. Her backstory is revealed slowly, explaining her need to numb the pain, and Sawar’s nuanced performance has the audience rooting for this flawed but strong character craving connection.
The unsavoury shenanigans of those in management and high places are sadly familiar to us all, so the sense of inevitability and helplessness felt by the workers hits hard. But the production isn’t preachy or accusatory – it simply presents human folly in all its ridiculousness with a deft and light touch. There are some quieter, emotional scenes that are performed exquisitely by the cast, but the fast-paced show is mostly high-energy and upbeat. The resilience of those at the bottom of the pyramid represented by Mia, and their determination to establish their rights, raises hope for the future with Mia’s final speech. But Tyler gets the last word – with the depressingly accurate message that the market rules, and nothing will really change as long as these brilliant jerks keep producing money making ideas.
Clever, funny and frustratingly relevant, Brilliant Jerks is well worth a look.