Friday, September 19, 2008

Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola

This was going to be a review of Six Characters in Search of an Author. But my friend and I arrived at the Gielgud theatre earlier in the week to find the shutters down and some apologetic front of house staff explaining about unexpected illness in the cast. So we were forced, forced I say, to go and come to terms with our disappointment over a bottle of red wine. And a number of gins. Hopefully I will reschedule for a date in the near future as it’s one I was super keen to see. So in lieu of the planned review, here’s some words (borrowed from musicOMH) about Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola which I saw last week.

A sail fish hangs above Monk’s bar, gleaming and glossy. It’s about the only clean, untainted thing in Tennessee Williams’s 1972 play, Small Craft Warnings, set in a Californian beach bar where human flotsam drifts in on the tide.

Apparently Williams specified fog blowing in off the Pacific in his stage directions, spewing forth desperate men and women like something in a John Carpenter film. We don’t get fog during Bill Bryden’s revival at the Arcola, but we do get desperation. The play reeks of it. Broken people and the whiff of bourbon. There’s the Doctor, who can’t get through the night without a cocktail of brandy and Benzedrine; the short-order cook with the pot-belly and the My Name Is Earl moustache; the feckless layabout who calls his cock ‘junior’ with pride rather than irony and the gay Hollywood screenwriter whose life no longer surprises him. Then there’s the young farm boy, hope undimmed, who he has picked up en route, and Violet, thin-limbed and prone to wailing in the ladies’ toilets, the varnish peeling off her dirty finger nails, who regularly dispenses hand jobs under the cover of the incongruously quaint red and white checked table cloths.

And in the middle of all this, there's Leona, the trailer dwelling beautician whose eyes have clearly seen things. It is her brother’s death-day and she sways round the place listening to violin music on the duke box, trying to pry another drink from Monk the bartender, who kindly but firmly declines.

Sian Thomas is superb as Leona, hardened but soft at the same time, a force to be reckoned with. No-one else in the fine cast gets quite the same chance to shine. Jack Shepherd, as Monk, has the spot-on look and manner of the man behind the bar and Greg Hicks makes an impression as the wasp-tongued and bitter, blazer-clad screenwriter Quentin who compares gay sex to a jab with a hypodermic. Meredith MacNeil, black bra showing through her a flimsy dress, dark hair piled up on her head (in a fashion appropriately reminiscent of Amy Winehouse), is also memorable as the fog-brained Violet.

The play is a difficult one, bleak and meandering, with shards of lyrical beauty amidst the murk. Each character takes their turn to step forward and spin out a confessional monologue, before retreating back into the wash. It has its powerful moments but something about it just doesn’t sit right. It’s a hard, tired play. And it is tiring to watch, all that misery, those empty lives. Bryden’s production is moving in places but also wearying, and, talented as the cast are, they sometimes struggle to do much with this collage of lost, sloshed people.

The detailed design (by Hayden Griffin) has some nice touches and the beat of the Pacific, the constant sound of crashing waves outside the door gives a certain rhythm to the piece, but it remains a play of moments rather than a satisfying whole.


bob said...

Unexpected illness?

What ever happened to One Understudy in Search of a West End Break?

Speaking of, we saw the understudy (Lucy Lummis) for Inez at Zorro last week and she was great. A far cry better than Emma Williams (who was great fun in Bat Boy, but way miscast in Z).

Anonymous said...

I am seeing it this Friday Tasha & hopefully I can start writing reviews again, getting a bit rusty!