THERE'S a topical undercurrent that courses through Dennis Kelly’s After The End that seems to somehow become only more prescient with each passing year. Debuting in 2005, it’s true that the spectres of the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq and post-9/11 neuroses can be felt in much of the socio-political commentary and debate littered throughout this claustrophobic piece, centring as it does around two young friends taking refuge in a fallout shelter after a nuclear attack.

And yet, despite this, the term ‘terrorist’ is mentioned fleetingly only once or twice, and the ensuing conversations about the perpetrators and how the world may react all kept deliberately vague and assumptive. And whilst fourteen years can be a long time in the world of both politics and theatre, the pulse of End powerfully maintains its relevancy by wheeling around deliberately broader, timeless and intensely human notions such as control, power and cooperation.

Geeky, quirky Mark (Isaac Milne) has rescued spirited, wilful Louise (Olivia Parsons) from the devastation and horrors of the post-nuclear wasteland above. It is mere hours after the attack, and burned, scraped and dirty, the two are now awake in their new world; a cramped, intimate safe haven that Mark had the foresight (see: paranoia?) to keep intact and stocked up when buying his new home. Haunting accounts of charred bodies crumbling to dust in the wind, the unknown fates of friends and loved ones, and a quite literal radio silence set the stakes and tone early on, with the added ticking time bomb of limited rations and water setting out the stall for tensions to come.

The ‘two-hander’ isn’t a particularly new or original concept in theatre. Heck, even under the umbrella of post-apocalypse/disaster, After The End has its peers. Yet Kelly’s play understands that the format is one that lives or dies by the strength of its characters, and the earnestness of the conflict and dynamics between them. What begins as initial numbness and disbelief as Louise and Mark come to terms with their horrifying new circumstance quickly erodes into deeper schisms between these two very different individuals, and the history between them bubbles uncomfortably to the surface.

Part of the reason the gradual fracturing of their friendship feels so genuine is because it stems from thoroughly believable and nuanced emotions and anecdotes. Jealousy. Insecurity. Paranoia. Was Louise laughing at Mark in front of her friends at a party good-natured affection or mean-spirited showboating? Is Mark re-enacting his dream of being in a caravan with a girl a frank reflection of his boyish naivety or a manipulative attempt at something more sinister? An extended set piece involving a game of Dungeons and Dragons initially provides plenty of surface-level laughs and humour, but gradually gives way to an uglier underbelly of control and dominance.

Stourbridge News: Isaac Milne (left) and Olivia Parsons (right) put in 'captivating', 'terrifyingly convincing' performances.Isaac Milne (left) and Olivia Parsons (right) put in 'captivating', 'terrifyingly convincing' performances.

Such is the intoxicating, swirling melee of emotions After The End assaults its audience with, bombarding them with humour, shock, empathy, disgust, not to mention a festering, unsettling shadow of doubt and suspicion. Given its fairly brisk run time (roughly 75 minutes without interval), it is almost dizzying the sheer tour-de-force of emotion the piece hits us with.

It is to the enormous credit of Stourbridge-based Pop-Up Theatre, and the taut, immersive direction of Naomi Coleman, then, that their interpretation of the piece hits all these disparate, at-times devastating beats with razor-sharp precision and conviction. Stripping back the show to its bare bones, and housing it in venues such as Stourbridge’s ClaptrapTheVenue with the feel of almost a theatrical living room improvisation, the audience have been invited to be part of Mark and Louise’s ordeal in the most raw and immediate way possible. In fact, so effective is this pared-back staging and in-the-round approach, one struggles to imagine so intimate and intense a piece having anywhere near the same degree of impact in a more conventional theatre staging set up.

Coleman directs the piece with confidence, precision and - importantly - patience, allowing the more delicate and sombre moments to breathe where required, yet ratcheting up the physicality and intensity of the show’s darker moments where necessary. There’s nothing worse than willing a show to just dial it up a notch, but here, from physical altercations to crackling silence, to the nigh-defeaning, repeated slamming of a metal pan into the ground during a particularly tense interlude, Coleman’s interpretation is confidently bravura, full-throated and satisfying at every pitch.

Carrying this smorgasbord of high drama on their shoulders are young Olivia Parsons and Isaac Milne, who put in at-times terrifyingly convincing turns. Parsons carries Louise’s flippant, drier side with a likability and irrepressible charm that less capable performers would likely bypass altogether, whilst Milne etches his Mark out as a similarly more sympathetic figure than could perhaps be drawn from the page. There’s an initial rationality and normalcy to Milne’s performance that slowly tiptoes towards something potentially more unhinged and sinister, without ever debasing itself to predictability. Together, the pair handle the higher drama and more extreme emotional beats with rawness and captivating, oft-distressing honesty. In fact, both performers, ably abetted by several switcheroos in Kelly’s writing, keep the audience on their toes throughout, as the balance of power and control in the small, confined space constantly shifts and switches, sometimes in the most unexpected and shocking of ways.

In all, it’s an exhausting and thrilling piece of theatre, an intense and captivating exploration of power, friendship, love and control, and the juxtaposition of this Earth-shattering cataclysm honed right down to two confused, struggling young adults trapped together and exploring exactly what that will involve. Directed with a shrewd eye for the human and the authentic (it’s easy for the detail to get lost amidst such high-concept dressing), and masterfully - not to mention maturely - performed by two exceptionally gifted young actors, After The End presents a piece that is somehow both timeless and timely, and a showcase for why, with any luck, Pop-Up Theatre will indeed be ‘popping up’ another slice of intense, theatrical thrills hopefully very soon indeed.

AFTER THE END has now finished its run of performances.

For more information on POP-UP THEATRE, and to find out information on their future productions, please visit and 'like' their Facebook page, by CLICKING HERE.