When Atlas Met Tantalus

Step into a Victorian parlour where tension hangs heavy as two men, James and Edwin, from entirely different walks of life, are bound by an unexpected twist of fate. A secret threatens to shatter their carefully constructed worlds, forcing them to confront their hidden desires and the core of who they are. Will their differences tear them apart, or can they find solace – and perhaps even love – in this chance encounter? When Atlas Met Tantalus promises a taut and poignant exploration of identity, hidden desires, and the weight of societal expectations in a world on the cusp of change.

When Edwin Scott (Simon Christian) unexpectedly finds himself in James Cartwright's (Lucas Livesey) personal parlour, the ground beneath him seems to shift, revealing a tantalising but forbidden fruit that beckons him.

Having just broken off his engagement to Cartwright’s sister, Edwin finds himself drawn into conversation with her shunned and elusive brother. The family drama is rife and reminiscent of a two-parter pulled straight out of Bridgerton

This beautifully devastating play captures the life of two gay men on opposite sides of the class walls and places a mirror between them in Victorian England. On the one side is the wealthy James Cartwright, who can hide in his lavish home from the public, invite whomever he chooses and pay off any papers from talking about him. On the other side is commoner Edwin Scott, who has just broken off marrying James’ sister but fears he can never “come out” as he will be arrested. 

Having a play set during this time highlights a lot of parallels from this old society to today, where the lives of the LGBTQIA+ community are at risk and being put on the firing line. 

When Atlas Met Tantalus does an incredible job and highlighting the injustice of queer people in society and provides an unsparing insight into the lives of forcefully closeted queer people.

Directed sensitively by Tiff Milner and Emily Layton, the former having also written the text, these two have created an impressive precedent and strikingly inventive way to utilise a challenging performance space. The proxemics were crafted to the millimetre. Milner, as the writers provides striking lines and important conversations shrouded with a nonchalant arrogance, providing much-needed comedic relief. While some plays with important messages can feel heavy and draining, this was so natural to watch and maintained constant interest and energy. 

Amidst the laughter skillfully delivered by Livesey, the dialogue carries a weight of tension and sorrow. As the truth of their circumstances is unveiled, the cast's tears are a testament to their exceptional talent, leaving the audience with plenty of poignant lines and moments to ponder.

It is a thought-provoking and poignant play that’s devastatingly enjoyable to watch.

The set, a masterful creation that pays homage to the era, is adorned with subtle references to the play's underlying themes. The inclusion of a globe bar sparks a discourse on vulnerability and the futility of isolation, seamlessly merging with the set and drawing the audience deeper into the play's world.

There is much to be said about the design of going into the wardrobe or “closet”. Not only was this metaphoric and symbolically revealed previous claustrophobic trauma, but it was also incredibly used alongside the lighting and sound design to allow this two-hander to welcome the voices of Verity EllenSimon Leyshon and Joe Evans into the production. In doing so, they provided a sense of the otherworld that they were just behind the door and always hiding from.

Inside said closet was an array of coats and gowns, which complemented the incredible costume design and suited their personalities and the show’s ethos. 

When Altas Met Tantalus is a hard-hitting, impressive, and important play that is well worth a visit to this quaint theatre! 

This show was reviewed on the 6th June 2024 at The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London where it runs until the 8th June 2024.  Tickets available here: What's On — LION & UNICORN THEATRE (thelionandunicorntheatre.com)

The show will also visit The Bridge House Theatre, London between the 11-15 June 2024.  Tickets available here: When Atlas Met Tantalus – The Bridge House Theatre

Review written by Ryan Lenney


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