Basement Killers: The Slapdash Assassin / Mo & Jess Kill Susie - review
Basement Theatre, February 27, 2014.
Produce a gun in the first act, Chekhov said, and you’re going to have to fire it in the last. Both plays on at The Basement right now demonstrate the wisdom and inevitability of that.
In The Slapdash Assassin, by Irish writer Mark Power, comedian Jeremy Elwood is a killer on the edge, the relentless craic all he’s got to save him from falling into any number of pits – despair, loneliness, futility and, of course, his own grave. It’s a magnetic performance, all greasy hair, shuffling feet and beer gut, and to his credit Elwood resists any impulse he might have had to smother over this with a cheesy charm. We’re engaged by Elwood’s Jerome, but we don’t like him.
Archetypes of Irish culture swirl around him, and you just know that gun will get fired and it will not end well. And yet, with Elwood in the driving seat, it’s a very funny comedy. The script spits out far too many indulgent one-liners for its own good, but at heart this play has much to say about the corrosive effects of misapplied family values – not to mention the role of God. “You can’t go from ape to atheist without religion,” says the golf-loving bishop. Cynical, and clever, and when people are likely to be killed in front of you, in the hot closed space of The Basement it is also very affecting.
Things are strikingly similar in the theatre’s Upstairs studio – with the guns and the misconstrued family values, but no jokes – where two angry, disaffected women have kidnapped a police officer, beaten her up and tied her to a chair while they wait for the call that will tell them to kill her. Aucklander Gary Henderson’s Mo & Jess Kill Susie, now nearly 20 years old, was clearly written as a response to the welfare cuts and economic retrenchment of the 1990s. It’s fuelled by a view common at the time: that if you dispossess the poor – if you strip them of hope – they will rebel.
That didn’t happen, which rather strands the play historically. Henderson was also rather too determined to provide psychological justification for his characters’ extremism, and too trapped in wordy exposition in order to do it. These women talk directly about big things way too much.
Still, it’s a tense, sweaty 75 minutes in the theatre. There are guns, and there will be death, and the actors present the work with a compelling urgency. By the time the terrible, surprising end arrives, their grief for their own lost lives is palpable, and you can’t help but share it.
The Slapdash Assassin, until March 8, 8pm. Mo & Jess Kill Susie, until March 8, 6.30pm. basementtheatre.co.nz