Sunday, 8 July 2007

American Nights - Kings Head Theatre, Islington

2+2+2 by Jörg Tittel (Axis of Evil Theatre Company)
Directed by Alex Halfrecht
"Dentity Crisis" by Christopher Durrang (Occam's Razor Theatre Company)
Directed by Sherrill Gow
Kings Head Theatre, Islington: July 3rd - July 29th
Reviewed by Adam Sheldon

Two theatre companies, two superficially unrelated plays with different settings and styles, two different casts and directors: this kind of production doubles every risk, practical and artistic, in winning audience approval. That the formula resolves in this case into a patchily entertaining, occasionally unsettling result is a credit chiefly to some bravura performances in the sweaty (but mercifully now smoke-free) cockpit that is the King’s Head in summer.

The greater stage time is occupied with a futuristic physical theatre piece, “2+2+2”, newly-adapted from his own short story by Jörg Tittel. He himself takes the lead role of Abe, a production drone in some vaguely recognisable Brave New World controlled by mysterious Owners - represented by the recorded voice of Richard E. Grant (a considerable and heavily-marketed coup for the production company, Axis of Evil). Life for Abe is a soulless round of work, pre-packaged television and regulated sleep periods; until he encounters fast-food waitress Sarah Lee (a winsome Kimberly Butler), and feels the first inner stirrings of rebellion which will lead ultimately to his doom. So far, so very tired and predictable: these are visions familiar from fiction right up to “Cloud Atlas”.

What lifts this experience above the common run of dystopian satire is the energetic presentation, with a set and flooring consisting of chalkboards on which scenic elements are repeatedly drawn and erased both by Abe and an extraordinary robotic character, perhaps his guardian, played with spectacular physical control and grace by Penny Lisle. The pace and precision of the action seldom flag, aided by a neatly-demarcated sound tape and snappy lighting cues; the repetitive cycle of the days takes on the quality of nightmare, until, driven by desire, Abe wakes into a kind of muted consciousness. However, once Abe and his love have broken free from their bondage, Tittel’s inspiration falters. Despite the writer’s aim, stated in the programme, of bringing “positive change in a world dominated by fear”, the play’s message is that the system always wins: finally swapping places with his robot, Abe effectively loses even the meaningless existence he has had until now (yes, it is “1984” – except that Abe has loved Big Brother from the start).

This is an echo of the conclusion to “’Dentity Crisis”, the short Christopher Durang apprentice piece which begins the evening. In its twenty-five minutes, this takes us on amusing sweep through the world of solipsist paranoia: nobody is what they seem, except you yourself – and you, it should be pointed out, are obviously mad! The dramatic framework is that of an all-American dysfunctional family, where mother Edith Fromage (the self-proclaimed inventor of cheese) variously romances her husband, her son and her lover in plain sight of her suicidal daughter, Jane – the twist being that these men are played by the same actor (Christopher Giangiordano, also doubling for good measure as an enfeebled grandfather). Jane’s psychiatrist is little help, apparently switching sexes with his own wife mid-therapy: her only remaining recourse is to play the same game, bringing her release from a straightjacket into total lunacy. The company responsible for the play is called Occam’s Razor, which is a principle saying the truth lies in simplicity; the truth of Jane’s situation, as you may guess, is very hard to discern.

This material demands exactly the right directorial touch, creating a heightened reality: not pantomime, but certainly not naturalism. Excellent costuming and two brightly coloured flourishes on set take us part of the way there, but director Sherrill Gow possibly expects too much from a fundamentally frivolous script. Wherever the humorous rhythm falters, as in a central section apparently going to the root of Jane’s problem (when she was a girl watching “Peter Pan”, Tinkerbell’s death was all her fault, for applauding half-heartedly), the play congeals into portentousness.

Fortunately, most of the action is expertly steered by Nancy Baldwin as the formidable Edith, in a performance which lifts everyone except the stone-faced Jane (Clare Wilkie) toward her own level of sheer comic verve. Baldwin and Giangiordano give a master class in how to play Durang with tripping cues and exact gesture, and they are very well supported by Andy Pandini and Andrea Sadler; although some of the group blocking they have been given, on a small stage, looks forced and awkward. The technical level of the production is basic, too, with unsubtle lighting changes and a rough-and-ready feel to the soundscape.

If the evening can in any sense be regarded as a whole – and the title “American Nights” is an irrelevance, with Nancy Baldwin’s tour de force self-evidently the only real US presence on show – both its halves deal with an individual struggling to break free from a suffocating, nightmarish situation. Thought of as offering any new insight on that predicament, it falls short. Even if there are several moments during the 110-minute running time when a frisson passes through the audience, there is also a lot of confusion: their appetite to laugh, fed by the candied taste of the first piece (and the curiously suggestive sight of Mme Fromage’s novelty banana bread), is gradually jaded by the bitter flavour of the second. Nonetheless, the effort put in by a talented group of performers definitely makes the trip to Islington worthwhile (though paying £20 to sit in possibly the most dowdy and uncomfortable auditorium in London would be, for some theatregoers, rather less of a laughing matter).

American Nights runs at the kings head until the 29th July for more information visit
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