Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cops And Cons

There seems to be some miscommunication at the Young Vic. For their new production, a revival of Thomas Babe’s A Prayer For My Daughter, the stage has been vertically and horizontally divided. By this I mean the auditorium has been split down the middle to form a traverse stage, with the audience steeply aligned on either side, and the set itself has been made into a two level affair, with a flight of stairs leading down from above.

Only nobody seems to have noticed all this spare space. The second – top – level of the set is a dead zone, made up of only of wires holding up the ‘ceiling’ below. Sitting midway up the stalls this just about worked in terms of sightlines, but it seemed like a bizarre choice of layout, especially since the current seating arrangement has taken the downstairs entrance to the auditorium out of play, leading to some major bottle-necking as people filed out at the interval. (The woman standing next to me even exclaimed, with wonderfully elongated vowels: “This will never do, what if there were a fire!”)

And the play, oh yes, the play. Babe’s 1978 New York-set cop shop drama is an intense four-hander. We’re in Sidney Lumet territory here, think Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, sweat and the city, men’s souls spilling over. So we have two cops, Kelly and Jack, and two criminals, Sean and Jimmy, with clear parallels between them, the thin blue line blurred, you get the picture.

An old lady has been shot dead, half her head blown off. And the two cops are determined to extract a confession. This is the 1970s though, so a punch in the gut is still a valid interrogation technique and shooting up in the office with your junkie suspect barely raises an eyebrow.

The dead old lady quickly gets forgotten, the crime seems like an afterthought thrown in by the playwright to get these men together. Babe’s interests in the changing nature of masculinity in post-Vietnam America, in what makes a man a man, in what makes a good father, bleed off the stage, but the clunky structure of the play works against any real sense of revelation. Kelly, the older and wearier of the two police officers, has a screwed up daughter who keeps phoning up, distraught, threatening to shoot herself. But he seems only minimally perturbed by this disturbance. The audience also struggles to care.

Dominic Hill’s production takes a good while to find its feet, and some of the actors overdo the Nu Yoik shtick, but in the second act things hit their stride, leading to some powerful and moving moments. The best of these occurs between Corey Johnson’s Jack, the younger police officer, and the more grounded of the two, despite his own drug use, and Sean Chapman, as traumatised Vietnam medic Sean. His account of cradling a dying soldier, as he tries to explain his sexuality to Jack, is incredibly powerful. "There's a woman inside me, officer," he tells him, "and she aches for the men she has known."

Colin Morgan, who, last year, played Vernon in the Young Vic’s wonky version of Vernon God Little, here plays the quivering young junkie Jimmy. At one point he was forced to strip to the altogether, ushering some rather sweet gasps from the gaggle of teenage girls a couple of rows behind me. It’s a very physical, very big performance, all ripples and twitches, somewhat undermined, for me, by his insistance on speaking like Ren from Ren and Stimpy throughout. As you can imagine, once my brain had made this connection, it was rather difficult to take him seriously – even during his big monologue about watching his daughter come into the world.

I also noticed that the actors playing the cons were still hand-cuffed when they returned to the stage to take their bows. I hope someone remembered to undo them before the after party.

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