Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simpatico at the Old Red Lion

I am not a fan of Sam Shepard's work. I've yet to see a production of one of his play's to convince me why I should be and yet, knowing this, I still rolled up to the Old Red Lion, keen as ever, wondering if this would be the one that would wake me up to what I had been missing before. But, unsurprisingly, that didn't happen. While there were aspects of the production I liked, mainly the performances the play left me cold. It's just Not My Thing.

So the following must be read with that in mind.

Simpatico is about two former friends, Carter and Vinnie, who grew up together and, years earlier, were involved in a horse racing scam, the consequences of which cast a shadow over both their lives. These two men have gone down different paths. Carter is successful, smartly suited and well-groomed; he’s a former alcoholic who has cleaned up his act and is clearly not short of cash. The bearded, wild-eyed Vinnie on the other hand lives in a cramped, grotty flat and has a somewhat wavering grip on reality. He has fantasies in which he is a detective and has a gun and a shoe box full of filthy photos to prove it.

Shephard's play is set against a backdrop of the horse-racing business. It’s an intense, if over-long, piece that works reasonably well on the compact Old Red Lion stage. But though its atmosphere is appealingly thickened with menace, its plot is just too knotty. And not in a good way. The details of what went down remain murky and it’s never really clear what exactly played out in the past, which one of them instigated it and why Vinnie has suddenly decided to do something about it. A degree of ambiguity is a welcome thing, but this stretches things rather too far. What we do know, or rather what Vinnie tells Carter, is that he has got himself in trouble with a woman, and following that, with the law, and needs help sorting this mess out. Carter, of course, can’t say no; he is ever aware that Vinnie could explode his comfortable life, if he put his mind to it, by exposing their past crimes.

Though it has its moments the play doesn’t really make its case for revival. It twists around, plays a few games, but doesn’t really take its audience anywhere worth going. The performances, however, as I've said, raise things up a notch. Phil Nichol is oddly appealing as Vinnie; there’s a trace of sadness buried under the matted hair and the grubby clothes. But the male characters are eclipsed by the two women, particularly Trudi Jackson as Cecilia, the woman Vinnie has set his sights on. She’s ditzy but not stupid, simply a tourist in this corrupt, dirty world of theirs; she doesn’t belong. He tries to get her to do his bidding, to buy her services with a white Kentucky Derby dress, but toting around a purse full of money makes her quiver with nerves. She’s not cut out for such scheming and, in the end, has the sense to walk away.

Danielle King has a far smaller part as Rosie, Vinnie's former wife, who is now living with Carter, nonetheless (and despite the fact she seemed too young for the role) she still made an impact, with her wide mascara-smudged eyes and her peach stain robe, her head foggy with pills.

Hannah Eidnow (who last year directed a memorable production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at the Arcola) has a good feel for the material, and the play feels less than its hefty two hours forty running time. She successfully brings this world of theirs to life on the small stage, but despite the best efforts of both her and the cast, (and, my apologies, but here comes the obligatory equine metaphor) Shepard's play remains more mule than thoroughbred. But then I would say that, because he's Not My Thing. The production struck me as solid and, obviously, if you like Shephard's work, you will get far more out of this.

And...there was yet more iPhone twiddling in the audience. Then, despite the presence of not one, but two, intervals, these same twiddlers decided to leave the theatre in the middle of the last act, an exit which entailed a brief trot across the stage. They didn't even leave together but one at a time, because if you're going to leave in the middle of a scene you clearly want to cause as much disruption as possible.

No comments: