entertainment

Eureka Day Review: Helen Hunt leads the sharp satire with a 'commanding stage presence'

Simon Button writes that "Eureka Day plays like a metaphor for a debate that has been raging for the last couple of years."

2022-09-26

Words: Simon Button; pictures: Manuel Harlan

Centred around an outbreak of mumps that sends the executive committee of a private school into a tizzy, since some members are staunch pro-vaxxers and others are steadfast against vaccines, Eureka Day plays like a metaphor for a debate that has been raging for the last couple of years.

It’s remarkable to learn, then, that Jonathan Spector’s ferociously funny play was written before the pandemic, premiering in California in 2018 ahead of an Off-Broadway run the following year. Talk about being ahead of the conversation!

Ben Schnetzer, Susan Kelechi Watson, Mark McKinney, Helen Hunt, and Kirsten Foster in Eureka Day at The Old Vic. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

It is also bang on the nose about wokeism gone mad as we are introduced to the committee members at the Eureka Day School in Berkeley, California, where gender-neutral pronouns are encouraged, the kids are so nice that they cheer when the other team scores and everyone is welcome so long as they have the wealth or financial aid to cover the fees.

Among them are Helen Hunt’s seemingly stoic Suzanne, Kirsten Foster’s single mum May, Ben Schnetzer’s stay-at-home father Eli, Mark McKinney’s peacekeeping Don, and Susan Kelechi Watson’s new arrival Carina.

Ben Schnetzer in Eureka Day at The Old Vic. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Over the course of several meetings, we get to know them better as mumps raises its ugly head and facades begin to crumble. Carina is patronised for being black as she is told “We welcome your unique perspective”, Eli’s clam exterior is shattered when his child is admitted to hospital and Suzanne’s reasons for her unwavering stance against vaccines are eventually revealed in painful detail.

Yet Spector keeps the comedy coming in a sharp satire that has characters spouting such right-on statements as “I feel heard” and “I’m a big believer in zinc”.

Kirsten Foster, Mark McKinney, Helen Hunt, Ben Schnetzer, and Susan Kelechi Watson in Eureka Day at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

These supposedly inclusive and accommodating folk keep cutting each other off mid-sentence, they get hot under the collar when one of them brings in disposable paper plates on which to serve gluten-free donuts, and they’re so desperate to appear politically correct that they fret about the colonial themes in Peter Pan.

Bringing star quality to the production, Hunt is outstanding as the most patronising of all the parents. Unlike the other Hollywood A-lister making her West End debut this year, Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie, she has a commanding stage presence that is matched by everyone around her.

Helen Hunt in Eureka Day at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Rob Howell’s simple, unchanging classroom set lets the actors and script shine, as does Katy Rudd’s taut direction. There’s maybe one too many meetings across the two-hour runtime and a couple of the characters aren’t quite so fully-developed as the others, but it’s laugh-a-second stuff. 

The piece de resistance: A Zoom session between the committee and parents where we see comments projected onto the set that begin warm and fuzzy before descending into C-word slagging-offs and accusations of idiocy and Nazism.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such collective laughter in a theatre, so loud that it drowned out the dialogue.

Rating: 4/5

Eureka Day is playing at The Old Vic until 31 October. For tickets click here.

The Attitude September/October issue is out now.