The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Archive: OFF WEST END AND FRINGE 1999
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of four 1999 London Fringe shows on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Five O'Clock Angel - Gringos - Solitary Animals - Strike Gently, Away From Body
Five O'Clock Angel Touring, Autumn-Winter 1999 (Reviewed in Edinburgh)
Maria St. Just first met American playwright Tennessee Williams when she was a struggling actress hoping for a role in one of his plays. She fell in love with him but, once she realised a romantic connection was not in the cards, settled for the role of acolyte.
Through the years their relationship changed: at first, she was the hanger-on, begging for roles and loans, but gradually Williams began to depend on her. Cursed with more than his fair share of author's insecurity and paranoia, he needed someone unjudgmental with whom he could be his unguarded, bitchy, dependent self.
When she married well, and became Lady St. Just, a decades-long correspondence and friendship developed. He told her he based some of his women characters on her, and that she played them better than any other actress. (He told every woman he met exactly the same thing, but she believed him, and it may even have been true.) At his death, she became his literary executor, and controlled productions of his plays for a decade.
This two-handed play by Kit Hesketh-Harvey (better known as the non-pianist half of the Flanders-and-Swann-like cabaret team Kit and the Widow) is based on the Williams-St Just letters and interviews with the lady herself. Perhaps as a result, it is more interested in the disciple than the author, and more sympathetic to her than other accounts (see, for example, John Lahr's unflattering New Yorker profile).
We see the two in conversation or in monologue, and watch the symbiotic relationship grow and change. The author effectively interpolates excerpts from Williams's plays, so that, for example, the playwright's emotional fragility is expressed through lines from The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, while Maria's steely strength finds lines from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Stefan Bednarczyk offers a sympathetic picture of Williams, showing us the needy, insecure man rather than the neurotic. But his performance is very much a supporting one.
Just as the play favors Maria over Tennessee, the production is designed as a showpiece for Nichola McAuliffe. Imperious, hard-as-steel, to some degree conniving, but primarily generous, her Maria is a star turn particularly effective in a small fringe venue.
Gringos Battersea Arts Centre, Winter 1999-2000
Europe and the US have become so intimate that the youth of today's middle classes are forced to cast further afield for that peculiar rite of passage our forefathers dubbed the Grand Tour. Tobby Farrow went to Latin America - a destination popular with the more intrepid - and Gringos is the thoughtfully comic result.
Lifetime Theatre's production, developed at the Bristol Old Vic, unravels a motley assortment of travellers "with nothing common but a serious lack of purpose in their lives", who have backpacked in for their de rigueur trail of teeming cities, infested jungles and stunning beaches.
The shifting dynamics (and liaisons) of the group develop as an achingly funny A to Z of the trip fueled by spot-on portraits: intellectual babe, jilted wannabe musician, hypochondriac Australian, brash American, Belgian animal sex expert... Sure you've met the types before, but perhaps not in such concentrated doses, and the jolts of recognition may on occasion be uncomfortable.
Marc Danbury excels as the charismatic but flawed tour guide Brando, as does Esther Ruth Elliott as the frumpy Fay. But really they are first among equals, joined by Paul Mohan, Elizabeth Hurran, Ed Sinclair and Simon McCoy.
Martin Constantine's deft direction underpins Farrow's vignettes - the telephone exchange opener of Act II is a mini masterpiece of ensemble staging. Sara Perks has designed a simple but highly versatile set that sets the scene by witty projected titles - "a hotel room", "the same beach... later".
There is great talent to watch out for on both sides of the stage of this production and if there is a show to take this year's Edinburgh (2000) by storm, then why not Gringos?
Solitary Animals Hackney Empire Studio, Winter 1999-2000
Every year, almost Panto-like, there are plays that seek to make the world's perpetual violence relevant to our own comparatively sheltered lives. Most are worthy but a bit ho-hum, but every year a few manage to bypass our woolly consciences and get our brains ticking instead.
Solitary Animals falls decidedly into the latter category. Laurel (Laura Wilkinson) is a foreign correspondent who is HIV-positive after a one-night stand with Blue (Grae Cleugh), who is deliberately infecting women after being infected in a similar manner by his now dying wife.
Blue now has his sights on Amela, a survivor of the rape camps in Bosnia who coincidentally has been brought over by Laurel for a lecture tour. Meanwhile Grev (John Milroy) is is attempting to woo back Laurel while trying unsuccessfully to contain skeletons from his Serbian war service.
Like many of the best of things, this production from the Final Draft company is an uneven process. The setting in writer Elaine Acworth's native Australia is disconcerting since none of the players appears to be indigenous (in fact, Grev's accent distinctly marks him as a Serb from, er, Orkney).
The dialogue reads at times as a bad translation and veers from spot-on to cringe-making and the performances suffer accordingly. And while the cast give a confident performance, particularly Goldblatt's impassioned Bosnian, the sexual chemistry between the various pairings is irritatingly absent.
And comparison of the two sets of sex crime/revenge theme works only up to a point: the choices here of to take revenge or not to take revenge are quite distinct since that of Amela involves whole communities, that of Laurel individuals. One is war, the other murder.
But to be perfectly honest these are quibbles. The way cast and plot fall seamlessly into place when all the characters finally meet each other and their demons is riveting and emotionally powerful. It is refreshing indeed to witness a play where drama and message can coexist so effectively.
Strike Gently, Away From Body Young Vic Studio, Fall 1999
This new play by the group called Wink would be a good introduction to alternative theatre for the neophyte. It uses clever writing and staging to tell an intelligible story, without ever being obscure or threatening, either in method or content.
Five actors assemble to audition for a TV commercial. One is a 70-year-old veteran, the others much younger. When the old guy has a heart attack, everyone in the room has their lives flash before their eyes.
And so we get a series of parallel and overlapping scenes, very cleverly written (by Rufus Norris and Katrina Lindsay) and staged (by Norris), showing their various childhoods, teens, decisions to become actors, disappointments and accomplishments, and so on.
The only weak element is that the characters are fairly stereotyped, so that what we see isn't particularly surprising or enlightening. On the other hand, that is one thing that keeps the play accessible.
So one girl had a loveless childhood and has turned into an uptight prig. A young guy tries to be macho but feels he's a failure. Another girl is a total social misfit (Why did she choose acting?) more at home with animals and watching TV than with real live people.
There are some nice moments. When the misfit falls in love and has sex, she reacts the way TV has taught her, by running around and waving her arms like a footballer after a goal. When one girl relives her father's wedding to a woman she hates, she sings curses to the melody of a church hymn.
It's well worth seeing for the methodology, as long as you don't have too high expectations for the content.
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Review - Five O'Clock Angel - 1999; Review - Gringos - BAC 1999; Review - Solitary Animals - Hackney 1999; Review - Strike Gently - Young Vic 1999