September 28, 2008

Looks Like Some People Need to Get Out More

By Kate Bassett

Theatre By creating so many characters in a dysfunctional rut, writer EndaWalsh has landed in one of his own The Walworth Farce NT Cottesloe LONDON Riflemind Trafalgar Studios LONDON The Girlfriend Experience Royal Court Upstairs LONDON

Just last month, I saw the Edinburgh Fringe premiere of a chamber play by Ireland's acclaimed playwright Enda Walsh. In The New Electric Ballroom, a cranky trio were trapped in their house and in the past, repeating untrustworthy memories like an obsessive ritual rather than venturing ou-

Sorry, I'll say that again. This week, I saw the National Theatre premiere of a chamber play by Enda Walsh (still Irish). In The Walworth Farce, a cranky trio are trapped in their house and in the past, repeating untrustworthy memor-

More than 50 years ago, Samuel Beckett penned Endgame: a chamber play where a cranky foursome are trapped i-

Got the idea? How ironic that in portraying fictional characters in dysfunctional ruts, Walsh himself has become wearisomely mired in a theatrical tradition, rehashing ad nauseam the format established by his revered predecessor. I suppose you could argue that it's as valid as a composer revisiting the waltz or sonata form, and Walsh does have things to say in this visiting NT production, staged by Druid theatre company. Some very bleak ideas about Irishness are insinuated, amid lashings of manic clowning, wig-swapping, cross- dressing and elasticated moustaches.

The Walworth Farce depicts a madly dysfunctional, all-male, Irish family in a fantastically dilapidated London flat. While playing old sentimental "Oirish" ballads and eulogising Cork with parochial nostalgia, Denis Conway's shorn-headed Dinny is a psychotically domineering and paranoid father. Putting the "mental" in "ghetto mentality", he has indoctrinated his two sons with the belief that the English, outside their heavily bolted front door, are hellish predators. He grills and castigates his weedy son, Tadhg Murphy's Sean - the worm who yearns to turn - suspecting the lad has begun to enjoy his little sallies to the high street. Maybe a hint of the fundamentalist padre there.

Meanwhile, both Sean and his backward brother, Garrett Lombard's Blake, are corralled into perpetually play-acting and reciting the fantasised past that Dinny has concocted to soothe his guilty conscience - suppressing a history of gory rapaciousness.

Director Mikel Murfi's production grows belatedly disturbing, when a sweet black shop girl - Mercy Ojelade's Hayley - knocks and is held hostage. She is forced by Dinny to take the missing wife's role, her face smeared in white cream. The rest of the evening is immensely tiresome, and the clowning and role-swapping is puerile. Conway seems to think yelling every line is going to make it hilarious, while Lombard and Murphy gurn and stomp around woodenly.

Bamboozled by the title of Riflemind, I briefly imagined that writer Andrew Upton (aka Mr Cate Blanchett) might have created some new mega-brainy superhero - the love child of Albert Einstein and Lois Lane, firing off ideas faster than bullets. No such luck. Riflemind is the name of a substance-abusing rock band who stupidly decide to re-form. This rambling and cliche-ridden script (about - oh, spare me - reprising the past) is so excruciatingly boring that, within 10 minutes, I wanted to shoot myself. By the interval, a spectator was standing in the aisle, engaged in what could have been mistaken for head banging but, upon inquiry, proved to be a desperate expressionistic mime - clubbing himself against the invisible iron bar of sheer tedium.

Yes, John Hannah looks vaguely like the Neanderthal-browed Noel Gallagher and, of course, this actor recited Auden's tear-jerking poetry in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Unfortunately, his opening monologue here - as the band's petulant singer-songwriter, John - is just pretentious. Supposedly composing late-night lyrics, he keeps drawling a morose chorus about lost love and fame, interspersed with mumbles about maybe "something messy on the guitars ... slow, kinda - dunno".

In spite of muffled titters from the audience, director Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't quite have the nerve to turn this into a fully fledged send-up, Spinal Tap-style. Hopefully Trafalgar Studios' ongoing collaboration with Upton and Blanchett's Sydney Theatre Company will yield something stronger in time. The best one can say, for now, is that several excellent actors are wasted on Riflemind. Steve Rodgers manages to be both amusingly rowdy and sensitive as the excitable bullied drummer, Moon, and Paul Hilton is outstanding as Phil, the brother who has played second fiddle to John's inflated ego. Loose-limbed and deceptively laid back, he brilliantly registers flashes of irritation and a simmering destructiveness - casually tossing a stash of heroin on his sibling's kitchen counter.

The Girlfriend Experience, set in the scruffy sitting room of a small Bourne-mouth brothel, may be accused of reinforcing the stereotype of the tart with a heart. But what's wonderful about this delicately structured verbatim docu-drama - put together from interviews by Alecky Blythe of Recorded Delivery - is its rich and subtle real-life detailing. This mix of the mundane and the outlandish is both absorbing and hilarious. Debbie Chazen is superb as the amazingly funny Tessa: a voluptuous middle-aged mum who runs the place and clumps around in dominatrix boots. The headphones worn by the cast - playing the original tapes in their ear - don't really enhance the authenticity. However, director Joe Hill-Gibbins's actresses are all superb, laughing over their kinkiest clients but also slumping into jaded blank stares and booze. See this.

'The Walworth Farce' (020-7452 3000) to 29 Nov; 'Riflemind' (0870- 060 6632) to 3 Jan; 'The Girlfriend Experience' (020-7565 5000) to 11 Oct

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