Apr 3, 2013 Theatre
Good Company, The Basement
April 2, 2013
Reviewed by Frances Morton
The theatre scene has been lacking in snappy international plays this year since Silo cut back on its programme so this it’s great to see this work by English playwright Caryl Churchill (Top Girls) produced.
To risk a sports cliché, it’s a play of two halves. The first half takes place in Victorian era Africa, when men wore safari suits, explored wild rivers, had black house servants they called “boy”, obedient wives, homosexuality was a “disease” and life was carried out in servitude to the Empire. Patriarch Clive and his listless wife Betty are living a lonely existence with their two children, a governess and Betty’s mother when rollicking adventurer friend Harry and a lascivious widow from next-door turn up. Hilarious lustful pursuits ensue.
The second half is set in a much more freewheeling, free-loving, modern day London but only 25 years later in the characters lives. Oh, and the actors switch roles so they are playing different characters. Confused? I haven’t even mentioned the men playing women, whites playing blacks, adults playing children, the sister-brother-lesbian orgy. Boundaries are being broken all over the place and that’s exactly Churchill’s point. We’ve come a long way since Victorian times on issues of sexual identity and desire. Churchill wrote the play in the late 1970s and director Sam Shore has elected to update the second half to be set today rather than in that period. Some of the transgressive powers of the script are lost in that translation. There’s a naïve optimism of an idealist present day where there are no rules, particularly when it comes to family units. That comes across as a 70s notion in the context of today’s fight for legal recognition for gay families. Has society’s pendulum swung back towards conservative in some ways?
Shore has directed an ambitious production in the cramped Basement space, complete with a live string ensemble and half a tonne of readylawn dressing the stage (the muddy odour that hits at the theatre door confirms it is real).
The live music accompaniment is a charming addition to the farcical nature of the play, especially alongside the Victorian pomp of the first half, although the playing was scratchy and could do with some polishing.
The eight actors cope with the demands of the roles brilliantly. Steven Anthony-Maxwell playing mother Betty in the first act glides around the grass in his beautiful frock and has an understated, gentle delivery that is a pitch-perfect for his gender bender.
A comedy of massive proportions, this play crams itself into the tiny Basement with commitment and enthusiasm. At three hours, the play is overlong and the themes get a hammering but the dextrous cast keep up the energy and it never ceases to be downright entertaining.
Until April 13.