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American Bytes Back

Tuesday, 17 August, 2010

London – The Lost Theatre- 19:30 Aug 10-30 (1:45 mins)

Seven American Plays

Seven all-American ‘ten minute’ plays are here presented together (though including only a fifteen minute interval the piece still lasts ninety minutes).

The seven are: My Name’s Art, Peter Snoad; Rosie The Teddy Bear, Steven Bergman; Fate, Elizabeth Horsburgh; Marvin and Julius, Steven Bergman; The Greening of Bridget Kelly, Peter Snoad; LA 8 AM, Mark Harvey Levine; The Renta, Mark Harvey Levine.

Play after play they come, without break, there is no explanation as to why, and Prav Menon-Johannson’s makes no effort to suggest any rationale behind these pieces being delivered in the same bill.  They are just American. And sadly they are tamely American.  Only the style and the language used (and the accents are often faulty) place them in the USA.  The title of this bill suggests it will be far more cutting edge and searching than it actually is. Big questions about America are not even touched upon, let alone asked.

Peter Snoad’s My Name is Art is the first piece on the bill.  Anthony (Michael James-Cox) is appreciating a mound of ‘Styrofoam spheres’ delicately decorated with American flags on cocktail sticks.  The simple lighting casts clear shadows on the bare pale stage floor.  The atmosphere of an art gallery is evoked, though the light colour is a shade too warm to properly achieve the naturalism aimed for.  Gloria (Zoe Lister) is depreciating the very same ‘work of art.’  Their costumes stereotype them; her spotty dress and market stall tacky Chinese bag, his jeans and grey blazer, dark scarf and thick rimmed square glasses.  The argument is hackneyed and Prav Menon-Johansson has done nothing to alleviate the boredom of the ‘modern art isn’t art’ argument poked fun at by yet another writer.

Direction is wooden and at times interferes with the flow of the piece.  There is too much movement, with actors conspicuously slavish to ‘blocking’.  Zoe Lister is particular guilty of meaningless puppet-like gestures that look uncomfortable.  Soon the stage action becomes a tedious push-me-pull-you of speak-walk, speak-walk.

Yet perhaps what is leading to this level of stage-awkwardness is misplaced sexual tension.  While both Gloria and Anthony should be focused on an argument about modern art, as the play’s rather silly outcome is to make clear, what becomes the main question is ‘who fancies who?’ Even Michael James-Cox’s most powerful speech on the meaning of modern art is undercut by the feeling that he is just trying to impress the girl.  Perhaps this is an inherent difficulty with employing actors who are peers, playing older than they actually are.  Whether this is true or not, sexual undercurrents nibble needlessly on several of these American bites.

When ‘Art’ (Chris Mitchell) bursts onto the stage in union jack underwear, tattooed with the word ‘Art’ in red glitter on his torso, and the word ‘Fucks’ down his spine the conceit of Snoad’s play is revealed. The direction is piteously tame.  Lines in the script suggest that Art should be naked. Replacing this shocking statement with Chris Mitchell’s game-show host smile, insipid cockney accent and constant air boxing is irritating and unjustified.  Michael-James Cox is bound to not see through his act by the script, but the act is infuriatingly transparent. In this production the play lacks (no pun intended) its meat.  The question of whether modern art has meaning or is just as capitalist as shocking people through pornography is lost.

However, this seven-part bill does improve.  The first taste is the bitterest.  The second bite, Steven Bergen’s Rosie, The Teddy Bear, is a more orginal, less heavy-handedly directed and genuinely touching one. This is the monologue of Rosie (Catriona Troop); a pig-tailed little girl in pyjamas clutching a teddy-bear.  It soon becomes clear that Rosie is not the little girl however, but the bear. Ben Pickersgill’s simple lighting; a warm, dim spotlight, perfectly captures the downcast nature of this toy lying by the side of the freeway.  It also evokes the sense of strangeness that the piece needs.  Catriona Troop’s acting is elegant and engaging.  She whirls with the ‘breeze of the passing cars’ and subsides into a giggling fit.  Her lightness of presence and genuine joy is appealing.  Yet as the dark nature of the play mounts Catriona Troop is equally exciting to watch.  Her wide eyes and terrified voice as she recalls how she ended up discarded on the curb draw sympathy and emotion.  This piece realises the power of a young actor allowed to take charge of a beguiling script.

Fate by Elizabeth Horsburgh is the third byte.  Charles Reston (Man) and Samantha Kisson (Woman) handle this clever, if somewhat predictable, piece of comic writing with delicate flair.  Man (Charles Reston) is dressed in the impractical fashion of a ‘tortured’ Liberal Arts Student (scarf and t-shirt).  His boyish good looks and intelligent confidence give him the presence to fill a role which arguably is written for someone older.  Woman (Samantha Kisson) is brilliantly whiney. Prav Menon-Johanssen’s costume choice is again, simple but appropriate.  The Pale and elegant summer dress worn by Kisson and the jangling beads and bracelets that complete the ensemble establish her character as a hippy-ish poet trying to attract a man.  The sexual tension Charles Reston and Samantha Kisson exude on stage together is masterfully handled.  Their game of improvised romantic cat-and-mouse encourages pleasant laughter.  Charles Reston is especially able, likeable though stupid he manages to deliver ridiculously arrogant and silly lines with brilliant conviction.

The final byte of the first half is Marvin and Julius by Steven Bergman.  Two guinea pigs discuss the pros and cons of freedom upon the realisation that when the roommates that own them graduate they will be separated.  The costumes are brightly coloured and suitably cartoonish, as is the acting style.  Michael James-Cox as Julius is easier to warm to than Chris Mitchell.  His sense of comic timing and caricature is winning.  His deadpan delivery offsets the silliness of the play’s central conceit well.  The story is touching, but does not lead itself easily to theatrical presentation.  The play feels like animation accidentally staged.

After the interval three bites remain and it is more of the same.  The writing is hit and miss, the direction is at its best when it is at its most minimal, light and costume are suitable, the cast are slightly too young to do complete justice to the characters they are being asked to embody (though they attempt to do so maturely).  In Peter Snoad’s The Greening of Bridget Kelly sexiness works detrimentally, confusing what the play is really about (patricide, religion and the nature of sin). Mark Harvey Levine’s, LA 8 AM is a smart piece of writing cleanly delivered, but the choreography interferes with the tragic aspect of the piece.  Charles Reston and Samantha Kisson become too involved in the story they are telling and the chill of them being mere statisticians is broken by this.

The last bite, Mark Harvey Levine’s The Rental, leaves a bitter taste.  Zoe Lister is again wooden (though this is slightly more appropriate to the character of Gloria).  However her casting as a thirty-year-old (she, like the rest of the cast, is most probably in her early twenties), undermines the clichéd Bridget Jones conceit of the play.  Chris Mitchell’s portrayal of Harold is as irritating as his earlier appearance as Art.  Prav-Menon Johannsen’s decision to allow him to slip into cringe-worthy musical theatre ditties was very poorly made.  While the Harold of the play is an ideal boyfriend, unrivalled at sweeping ladies off their feet, in this production the character created is of notably less importance than celebrating Chris Mitchell’s insipid talents.

Though there are pearls in this production, Rosie, The Teddy-Bear, Fate and the intriguing conceit of LA 8 AM, the lack of rationale behind staging these pieces in one bill and their lack of real originality, their clingy direction and the frustrating under-aged casting all mean that these seven bites do not make a satisfying meal. Perhaps this is because, overall, the production feels like a showcase, produced to platform the writing and the cast but not to entertain the audience.

Cast Credits:  Zoe Lister – Gloria/Sonja. Michael James-Cox – Anthony/Julius/Kevin.  Chris Mitchell – Art/Marvin/The Priest/Harold. Catriona Toop – Rosie/Bridget/Paige.  Charles Reston – Man/AAA.  Samantha Kisson – Woman/GGG

Company Credits:  Producer  – Liminal Space & J.J. Williams.  Director/Designer –   Prav Menon-Johansson.  Lighting Designer –  Ben Pickersgill.  Sound Designer-  Sam Charleston.  Technical Operator –  Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson. Assistant to Director – Andrew McRobb. Photography – Pete Le May.

Also Credited: Juliet Swindells, Kamals Swindells, Peggy at The Miller Centre, Sophie Taylor, Tom Hough, Giles Foreman, Anatole Menon-Johannson, Peter Bull, Melanie Mehta, Mary Howland, James Mountford, Jenny Rusby.

(c) Rebecca Gibson 2010

Reviewed Saturday, 11 August 2010 / The Lost Theatre

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