Posts tagged ‘the stage’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

10 October, 2010

Heroin(e) for Breakfast

 

Kirsty Green and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast

Kirsty Green and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast. Image courtesy of Martin Shippen Arts Marketing and Media

 

Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 8 – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Is anyone else sick of being harangued from the stage? For being too middle class, or too complacent, or too passive?

It’s a technique that suffers from the law of diminishing returns. If Heroin(e) for Breakfast were the only play to barge down the fourth wall and berate the audience about their lifestyle, it would be groundbreaking, challenging, even blistering in its attack on modern social mores. But Tim Crouch already did it in The Author, Lowri Jenkins did it in 19;29’s Threshold, David Leddy did it in Sub Rosa – and that’s just counting shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. At the risk of sounding too middle class, one can only take so much.

The character doing the ribbing in this case is Tommy Croft (Craig McArdle), a self-styled revolutionary and, almost incidentally, a heroin user. Being quite justifiably fed up with being judged and diagnosed by the moral majority, Tommy injects them (i.e. us) with a strong dose of their (our) own medicine and – in a rare case of recursive double irony – proves his own point about the ineffectiveness of the hectoring sermon as an incentive for behavioural change.

In the beginning, Tommy’s fun to be around. He speaks his mind, he’s got an offbeat worldview and a gleefully filthy way with words. So are Chloe and Edie (Kirsty Green and Kate Daley), the girls that share his flat (and affections): playwright Philip Stokes has a good ear for corrosive snark, and the pair fling his stinging lines laconically across the stage, like paper planes full of anthrax.

Even the play’s most hazardous theatrical conceit, the personification of heroin in the body of Marilyn Monroe (actually Hayley Shillito), is executed with such balls that only the most hardened Naturalist wouldn’t buy in.

But come act two, the bunch of them have become tiresome. Tommy’s metatheatrical asides begin to seem gimmicky. The girls drop the subtext-laden sarcasm and just shout at each other (and Tommy) instead. Heroin(e)‘s oratory gets repetitive, and with each repetition rings increasingly hollow.

If the point is that heroin addiction makes you strung-out, paranoid, delusional and dull, Heroin(e) for Breakfast succeeds a little too well. Of course it wouldn’t be realistic for the light-hearted fun and games to continue once the shooting up begins, but the tonal shift is such that the play actually ceases to be engaging. And sorry, Tommy: whether it’s coming from the pulpit or the pews, a sermon’s a sermon, and no one reacts well to being told how to live.

Written by Philip Stokes

Crew includes Philip Stokes (director), Craig Lomas (set), Marie Dalton (lighting) and Carley Marsh (costume)

Cast includes Kate Daley (Edie), Kirsty Green (Chloe), Craig McArdle (Tommy) and Hayley Shillito (Heroin(e))

Need a second opinion?

4 October, 2010

Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge. Image courtesy of Jo Allan PR

Waterloo East Theatre, 28 September – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

While they slouch about waiting for a perpetually delayed Ryanair flight home, four lads reminisce and recriminate about what they can remember of their Costa del Sol holiday. The best bits of Dougal Irvine’s new musical call to mind a sort of booze-hazy Rashomon: the natural disparities between the four lads’ perspectives are compounded by alcohol-induced memory distortion.

Comparing Departure Lounge to Rashomon makes it sound much more pretentious than it is. It rarely feels heavier than watching a bunch of mates larking about. But Irvine does have noteworthy things to say about laddism in general, and the idea of the lads’ holiday in particular.

What, for instance, is the difference between a lad, a guy, and a hooligan? And if the measure of a good night out is how little of it you remember, what’s the point of shelling out extra to have your nights out abroad? One particularly enjoyable number, ‘Spanish Hospitality’, suggests cheekily that entertaining raucous British holidaymakers is Spain’s ongoing penance for sending the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The book, minimalistically scored for two acoustic guitars, references the boyband pop subgenre with its catchy choruses, close-harmony singing and slightly self-conscious white boy rap interludes.

The dialogue between numbers is less well judged. We’re force-fed, not drip-fed, the characters’ backstories; the phrase “I mean” is used a few times too, often to execute handbrake turns in the flow of conversation; and the closeted character’s self-realisation and coming out is perfunctory and unconvincing – all of which are admittedly minor, but nevertheless disappointing, detractions from an otherwise enjoyable show.

Written by Dougal Irvine

Crew includes Pip Minnithorpe (director), Spesh Maloney (musical director), Cressida Carré (choreography and musical staging), Will Reynolds (lighting and set designer), Georgia Lowe (costume designer) and Gareth Owen (sound designer)

Cast includes Chris Fountain (JB), Verity Rushworth (Sophie), Jack Shalloo (Pete), Liam Tamne (Jordan) and Steven Webb (Ross)

Need a second opinion?

29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Need a second opinion?

18 June, 2010

Wild Horses

Theatre 503, 15 June – 10 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Don’t try to deviate from your designated channel through life. It only leads to heartbreak: lost friends and unfulfilled ambitions for Ellie (Jessica Clarke), the main character in Nimer Rashed’s Wild Horses, and a near-fatal final act derailment for the play itself.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie (that’s Eleanor, not Elizabeth) is welcomed gingerly back to Eastbourne after six months AWOL with an older man. Her eyes have been opened just enough to take the shine off the idea of a job in Tesco’s and two point four children with sweet but goofy on-again-off-again Darren (John Trindle).

Meanwhile the friends and family she left behind have – discourteously – failed to stay the way she left them, so she can’t even lord her new-found worldliness over them. Her Dad’s transferred his fatherly affection to Carol Vorderman, her best mate Zoe’s about to turn the tables and abandon her for the bright lights of Camp America – even Darren smokes a pipe now.

In short, Ellie would have been happier accepting the hand life dealt her, instead of chasing romance and ambition. Her guilt over disappearing makes her incapable of refusing anything she’s exhorted to promise, which leads to a string of broken oaths, until no one trusts her but the reassuring, though mysteriously recurring, Tom Kanji.

All of which is captivating enough, but though Rashed’s plot threads are many-hued and skilfully interwoven, all but one is hacked off and left to dangle. What’s more, the one that is given some closure isn’t introduced – or even really hinted at – until the final act.

What Rashed’s going for is a daring last-minute rug-pull à la Theatre503’s last big hit, The Mountaintop. Ideally the rug should be swept stylishly out from under us, exposing the glass floor below, so we realise with wonderment that all along the play was not what we unimaginatively assumed it was. What actually happens is the rug snags, and we’re left sprawled on bruised behinds, humiliated, birdies circling our heads as we squint uncomprehendingly at the Dadaist magic-eye ceiling tiles, until the play apologises, replaces the now-ragged rug and pretends the whole incident never happened.

It’s never a mistake to dare to try something bold and different. But as Ellie learns, when it turns out you were wrong, admitting it – to yourself and others – is the only way to move on.

Written by Nimer Rashed

Crew includes Nadia Latif (director) and Lorna Ritchie (designer)

Cast includes Jade Anouka (Zoe), Jessica Clarke (Ellie Porter), Amanda Daniels (Jen Porter), Tom Kanji (Dr Gupta/Satyajit/Shanti), Patrick Toomey (Paul Porter) and John Trindle (Darren)

Need a second opinion?

6 June, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Chris Gee and Olivia Vinall in Romeo and Juliet

Chris Gee and Olivia Vinall in Romeo and Juliet. Image courtesy of Mobius

Leicester Square Theatre, 1 June – 11 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ruby in the Dust have created a nearly perfect Romeo and Juliet for the modern attention span. They’ve had to kill a few Bardic darlings to get there – “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” is lost to the edit, as are many supporting characters – but what remains is for the most part pacey, rhythmic and engrossing. The running time? Two brisk hours, including interval. Not bad for the most epic of romances.

So why only nearly perfect? It might not seem possible for a Romeo and Juliet, but some scenes are actually too brisk. Juliet’s (Olivia Vinall’s) mask is hardly off her face before Romeo (Daniel Finn) plummets into enraptured soliloquy; without even a moment’s pause for his feelings to blossom, they can’t help but seem unreal.

Likewise, Mercutio is dragged offstage and into his grave almost before he’s finished wishing plagues on houses. It’s a hurried and anticlimactic end to Christos Lawton’s performance, which is louche, charismatic and very watchable despite his tendency to gabble through pursed lips like a hastily dubbed-over black and white movie star.

The lovers are, appropriately enough, most believable and enjoyable when love is in the driving seat. Their impetuous first act trysts are Catherine-wheel whirls of flirtatious double-talk, spitting passion in all directions – but Vinall in particular responds to the second act’s mounting tragedies with typical, and therefore unconvincing, melodrama. The wider her eyes, the shakier her voice, the more lines she directs, palm upraised, to the middle distance, the less attention she commands.

But the vast majority of scenes are bite-sized in length; Jessica Hrabowsky’s fight choreography is way above the off-West End average despite the small space; and notwithstanding some bendy rubber knives and an anachronistic Maglite the production is appealingly visually coherent.

P.S. Apparently the production is set in Mussolini’s Italy. As a design decision it’s inescapable; silver skulls and eagles adorn Christopher Hone’s monochrome design, the black-shirted Capulets perform Fascist salutes at every opportunity and Romeo wears a Star of David pendant. But all this is little more than window dressing.

It’s still his Montague surname, and not his Jewish race, that Romeo holds responsible for his tribulations; Juliet’s domineering father (Chris Gee), not Mussolini’s Race Laws, is the main obstacle to her matrimonial bliss. This is an admirably efficient Romeo and Juliet; but it can’t pretend it has anything whatsoever to say about Fascism.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Linnie Reedman (director), Joe Evans (composer), Christopher Hone (designer) and Jessica Hrabowsky (fight director)

Cast includes Martin Dickinson (Tybalt), Daniel Finn (Romeo), Chris Gee (Capulet), David Laughton (Benvolio/Laurence), Christos Lawton (Mercutio), Dan Moore (Paris), Olivia Vinall (Juliet) and Imogen Vinden-North (Nurse)

Need a second opinion?

28 May, 2010

Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir

Katrina Nare and Cavin Cornwall in Napoleon Noir. Image courtesy of Theo PR

Lost Theatre, 19 May – 5 June 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Poor Toussaint L’Ouverture – known in his native 18th century San Domingo (modern Haiti) as the Napoleon Noir – is apparently doomed to historical oversight. Despite being a hero to his nation, a liberator of slaves, he’s reduced to a bit player even in the play that bears his nom de guerre.

Though in writing Napoleon Noir Marcus Heath presumably intended to raise L’Ouverture’s public profile, his portrayal of the man is decidedly ungenerous. Cavin Cornwall has the necessary presence and poise to lend Toussaint a dependable solemnity, but he still comes across as a poor strategist, blinded by stubbornness.

There’s the seed of a great tragic plot there just waiting for nourishment. Instead, the play suggests Toussaint’s assertion that he “cannot trust any white man!” is the root of his downfall, and that he would have been better off had he heeded the advice of his second-in-command, the rather ineffectual (white) French general La Terre (Maurizio Molino).

Perhaps if Toussaint were allowed more stage time, Heath would have the space to do him justice, but swathes of the play are given over to the underdeveloped intrigues and romances of the underdeveloped characters that comprise Toussaint’s household. These predominantly female supporting characters aren’t well served by the script or by Hannah Kaye’s direction, which resorts too often to comically overplayed cleavage-plumping and saucy asides.

Toussaint’s half-French mistress Mireille (Katrina Nare) is probably the largest part in the production, and should probably be its emotional core – abandoned by her general to the mercies of the French military aristocracy, she should stand in for all the wronged people of San Domingo. But Toussaint pays her too little attention in their few scenes together for their bond to be emotionally engaging; Heath gives her a lot of whiny speeches and soppy, forgettable power ballads to sing; and Nare, alone of all the cast, retains a drama school RP delivery that sets her jarringly apart from what should be an ensemble.

The whole production, in fact, is a jumble of jarringly distinct styles and elements. Each scene is airtight, so tension and momentum built up in the opening minutes, as the white and black Napoleons’ incompatible desires steer everyone inevitably towards violence, dissipate uselessly and are forgotten once the focus shifts to the household.

Heath’s poppy musical compositions sit uncomfortably alongside Duncan Walsh-Atkins’ more African-accented, drumming-and-chanting-led pieces. Excruciating naturalism blurs suddenly into expressionist movement pieces. Every four or five lines someone drops into GCSE-standard French small talk. And once, in the second act, Mireille reacts to news of yet another unlikely affair by addressing a pantomime “Ooh la la!” direct to the audience.

Where, meanwhile, is the neglected hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Napoleon Noir? Either trying his level best to look dignified amongst it all, or very sensibly backstage, staying beyond the reach of the circus.

Written by Marcus Heath

Crew includes Hannah Kaye (director), Duncan Walsh-Atkins (musical director) and Iain Storey (choreographer)

Cast includes Cavin Cornwall (Toussaint), Maurizio Molino (La Terre), Hayward Morse (Le Clerc), Katrine Nare (Mireille), Katherine Newman (Pauline) and Zama Precious Siphengana (Yamaya)

Need a second opinion?

11 April, 2010

Porn – the Musical

Theatre 503, 10 April – 1 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

It’s fair to assume that few people watch porn for the plot, and it’s best to take the same approach to Porn – the Musical. Erase the phrase “But what about…” from your vocabulary and you’ll find a pretty entertaining hour of musical theatre scattered through the two-hour running time.

The book acknowledges and embraces the leaps of logic and sketchy characterisation typically associated with porn and bad musicals alike. The whole production is suffused with a sense of fun, distilled in a couple of life-affirmingly glorious puns and some knowingly silly choreography (covering naïve Stefan’s (Brendan Cull) modesty with convenient towels and beach balls in ‘Naked on a Sunday’); and the whole cast commit to their roles with devil-may-care abandon.

The lyrics are often stretched a bit to fit the meter or rhyme, and there are too few energetic numbers in the second act, but there are one or two gems – chiefly those featuring hung-but-dumb porn stud Dr Johnny Long, PHD (Alain Terzoli). Johnny’s poppy introductory number is the highlight of the first act, and his entrance peps up an otherwise forgettable first act closer.

Unfortunately the fun stuff is heavily watered down with awkward metatheatrical asides.

First there’s a totally extraneous narrator (Malcolm Galea, one of the writers) who turns up with irksome regularity to recap things we saw two minutes ago, and to summarise thoughts and feelings we really should be discovering through the performances.

Then, throughout, the cast drop out of character to explain scenic devices to one another, a tendency embodied by the Miscellaneous Man (Ahmet Ahmet). He plays all the minor roles, and the other performers keep confusing whom he’s playing when, a joke that relies on jolting the audience out of their engrossment in the show. He even gets a number about how the rest of the company don’t appreciate him.

That’s not even the only purposeless number; the second act starts with the cast berating latecomers through song, and the show ends with a full-cast ballad devoted solely to informing the audience that the show’s over and they can go home.

The problem in a nutshell seems to be that the writers wanted to write about musical theatre – to poke gentle, self-effacing fun at its archetypes, tropes and clichés – but somehow accidentally wrote a musical about porn instead.

Written by Boris Cezek, Malcom Galea, Abigail Guan and Kris Spiteri

Crew includes Paul Robinson (director), Ally Holmes (choreographer/assistant director) and Rachael Canning (designer)

Cast includes Ahmet Ahmet (Miscellaneous Man), David Burt (Marvin), Brendan Cull (Stefan), Malcolm Galea (Narrator), Jody Peach (Jade), Alain Terzoli (Dr Johnny) and Sophia Thierens (Sanddy)

Need a second opinion?

16 March, 2010

Relax

Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 12 March – 4 April 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

When dealing with themes like sexual predation or mental illness on the stage, a certain amount of sensitivity is required to keep the portrayals dramatic rather than exploitative. When dealing with such themes in the context of comedy, an even more sensitive touch is necessary. In Relax, Robert Farrar attacks his subject matter with all the sensitivity of a tank battalion.

James Holmes plays Sandy, houseproud proprietor of a Weston-Super-Mare B&B. Lonely since the departure of his much younger “houseboy” and (it’s heavily implied) lover, he’s taken to date-raping his guests after plying them with Bailey’s and Rusty Nails, then in the morning blaming it on his mentally unstable identical twin brother Jimmy. Or has he? An attempted plot twist in act two suggests even Farrar himself is undecided whether or not Jimmy is real.

Whichever it is, Jimmy’s learning difficulties are treated as little more than a pretext for Holmes to caper about in his pyjamas doing a silly high-pitched voice. Scant attention is paid to the implications either way (that either Sandy is faking mental illness to get away with rape, or that sex is occurring in which neither party is lucid enough to consent); we’re expected instead to treat it as a light-hearted comedy of errors.

In case no one buys that, Farrar has stuffed the script with gay innuendo, ranging from the merely cringeworthy (Fred, guest: “Your employer’s a little bit volatile.” Bijan, new houseboy: “Really? I’m a total bottom myself”) to the seriously stretched (Sandy: “I’m houseproud, but I’m not anal” – delivered with an expectant pause for laughter despite being, not an innuendo, but simply an instance of a word sometimes associated with sex).

Most of the cast, Holmes included, ham up their characters as best they can; two, Tony Bluto and Nadia Kamil, appear distinctly uncomfortable in their assigned stereotypes (respectively a promiscuous, drug-abusing older gay man and another generically “mad” individual, possibly a paranoid schizophrenic – I’m no expert and, clearly, neither is Farrar). By stumbling their lines and shying away from fully embodying their roles, they sabotage the play in small ways, redeeming themselves slightly for their part in it.

Yes, it is important for us to be able to laugh at serious issues such as those tackled in Relax, but not like this: not by obscuring their seriousness behind the comedy label, and not by reinforcing pejorative stereotypes in order to ridicule those on whom they’re based.

Written by Robert Farrar

Crew includes Phil Setren (director) and Martin Thomas (designer)

Cast includes Tony Bluto (Bijan), Dominic Cazenove (Fred), James Holmes (Sandy), Nadia Kamil (Mari-Claire) and Mark Leeson (Mike)

Need a second opinion?

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