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Review: Eureka Day at The Old Vic, London

Helen Hunt made a hilarious UK stage debut at the Old Vic Theatre in Eureka Day this week, a sharp comedy which comes with a trigger warning: it will make you laugh out loud – a lot.

Eureka Day review

Helen Hunt in rehearsal for Eureka Day at the Old Vic Theatre (Image: Manuel Harlan)

Eureka Day was written by Californian playwright, Jonathan Spector. It’s set in pre-pandemic USA in hip Berkeley, a liberal city known for its arts and culture scene and its liberalism. Neither Spector nor his 2018 characters would have even heard of Covid-19, yet the play resonates today probably more than it would have back then. That’s because it’s all about an outbreak of mumps in a school and how the politically correct parent-teacher community deals with the contentious issue of whether to vaccinate or not.

Carina (Kelechi Warson ), Suzanne (Helen Hunt) and Don (Mark McKinney)

It all starts off so well. The five parents who make up the Eureka Day school’s executive committee are a friendly, touchy-feely, Birekenstock-wearing bunch. The head of the school, Don (Mark McKinney) is a cuddly, kind bear of a man, who likes to read Rumi during their gatherings and is all about fairness and justice. Then there’s Suzanne (Helen Hunt), the kind, albeit slightly passive-aggressive matriarch who is a veteran mother at the school. Susan Kelechi Warson (This is Us) is Carina, the newbie pragmatist who gradually becomes more opiniated and is about to upset the group’s consensual status quo. Ben Schnetzer is Eli, the stay-at-home dad who talks over everyone, (of course he’s not mansplaining, but he has so much to say). Finally, there’s Kirsten Foster (Life of Pi) as May, who quietly knits her way through the first half of the play, her anger simmering along nicely until she finally boils over.

Eureka Day kids “always cheer when the other team scores,” only gender-neutral pronouns are allowed, and the secret to happiness comes in the form of artisanal donuts provided by a nearby artisanal bakery. The parents all get along in a happy, hippy-like fashion, gender-neutral toilets are provided, and the solution to removing the racist undertones in Peter Pan  is to set it in outer space. Kids and parents are taught to respect each other in a world where consensus is always to be reached sotto voce. No raised voices in the Eureka room, please.

But a mumps outbreak comes to upset all that goody-goody parenting, especially when Don comes up with the idea to have a CAC – a Community Activated Conversation – about the subject. About half the school is vaccinated whilst the other half is not. To close or not to close, to quarantine or not and whether vaccinations should be mandatory suddenly become topics where the parents and teachers have to agree to disagree.

Eli (Ben Schnetzer) and May (Kirsten Foster) Image: Manuel Harlan)

The CAC is done over Facebook Live between the committee and the parents. What then ensues is an hilarious Facebook chat between the parents, all displayed on a large screen above the stage. It starts off friendly enough when the Google-educated parents offer ginger, turmeric and cider vinegars as a cure for mumps, although nut butters are also suggested as a useful panacea. It then quickly descends into chaos when the idea of compulsory vaccinations and school closures is mooted. The cool, calm, politically-correct Berkeleyan language turns into foul language, including even a “see you next Tuesday.”

Eureka Day’s second half is a different beast – more sombre and sad. We become more intimately acquainted with Suzanne and why she’s so vehemently opposed to vaccination. Carina eloquently puts forth her argument as to why kids should be vaccinated, and the audience is invited to see both sides of the debate. The play asks us to question whether all points of view are valid, and if not, who is wrong and who is right.

It’s expertly-crafted acting all-round, and it will come as no surprise that Hunt carries off her role to perfection. Hats off to Spector for such an insightful, knee-slapping take on the bonkers world of liberal political correctness. The second half dragged on a bit, but it’s not Spector’s fault: he didn’t know we would have two years of Covid round the corner and that we’re now all a bit weary of the vaccination “should we shouldn’t we” conversation. Despite this, Eureka Day cheered me up no end. But I do have a request Mr Spector: could we have a play about the right-wingers now? Now wouldn’t that be a hoot?

Eureka Day is on at The Old Vic Theatre until 31 October 2022. Book tickets here. Running time: 2 hours including interval

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