Don’t. Make. Tea. review – the disability benefits interview as Kafkaesque comic nightmare | Stage

It is 2037 and the government has instituted a new system for assessing claims for disability benefits. Having listened to complaints about the old questionnaire, it has reframed its evaluation in more positive terms. This, goes the slogan, is “accessible Britain: a country we can all use”, and now everyone can be provided with work that suits their ability.

For Chris (Gillian Dean), the very thought is excruciating. A former police officer, she reluctantly quit her job because of oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy (OPMD), which is causing her body to progressively weaken and her eyesight to fade. The interview with her upbeat assessor, Ralph (Neil John Gibson), blandly following Department for Work and Pensions protocol, is a cat-and-mouse game of evasion and entrapment. Chris cannot win.

As set-ups go, it’s a long one. The whole first half in fact. Before the interval, Rob Drummond’s script has a satirical sting as it skewers a benefits system designed to penalise rather than help. But it is grimly true more often than it is funny.

Likewise, Robert Softley Gale’s production for Birds of Paradise feels uncharacteristically timid. Ralph’s cross-questioning of Chris as she sits on the couch on Kenneth MacLeod’s living-room set is a largely static conversation, domestic and untheatrical. It has witty sparks but fails to establish a comic momentum.

Photograph: Andy Catlin

But the playwright and director are playing a long game. With the second half, Don’t. Make. Tea. explodes gloriously into life. Suddenly we see this Kafkaesque nightmare in all its comic grotesqueness, not least because Chris’s condition is causing her to hallucinate.

At once playful and subversive, the production’s audio-describer (Richard Conlon) and BSL interpreter (Emery Hunter) switch from passive to active, no longer simply providing a running commentary but becoming participants in Chris’s struggle with a callous system … not to mention the small problem of disposing of a body.

Employing her police skills in an attempt to pull off the perfect crime, she is confronted by Jude (Nicola Chegwin), the self-hating architect of the Work Pays system. In her one-sided battle against the power of the state, Chris makes a persuasive case for underhand action in a funny and political broadside for disability rights.

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