Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Adelaide Fringe reviews: 'One for the Ugly Girls', 'The Blue Room'

'One for the Ugly Girls'
ONFG, Tuxedo Cat, 14-26 February 2013. Written by Tahli Corin. Directed by Adriana Bonaccurso.

This review contains spoilers.

Playwrights seem to be drawn to the stories of painters in much the same way moths are to light. John Logan put Rothko on stage in Red, Debra Oswald the fictional Leo Bailey in Mr. Bailey’s Minder. Both plays have recently been seen in Australia, the former with Colin Friels as the irascible genius who took his own life after achieving a fame of which he was deeply suspicious. It is widely supposed by playwrights that all painters are irascible geniuses. Such a character type is, after all, fertile stuff for a dramatist: brilliant but unpredictable, lovable but flawed, heroically successful but ultimately bound for self-destruction.
            The painter in Tahli Corin’s One for the Ugly Girls is Alistair (Syd Brisbane), a gifted landscape artist unable – perhaps, even, unwilling – to move on from the death of his wife. He is not exactly eccentric but he is certainly difficult, his grief and subsequent reclusiveness having taken their toll on his sociability. Alistair employs the services of a life model called Jade (Lori Bell) in the misguided hope that he will be able to  prolong the memory of his wife by grafting her likeness onto the body of another woman. The flame-haired Jade, arriving in a black jumpsuit and with the first of several potty-mouthed outbursts, is not quite the refined beauty Alistair had in mind from the internet profile. A classic double act with echoes of Pygmalion ensues, the painter and the seemingly unlikely model forming an uneasy truce which is shattered, finally, by the arrival of a second woman calling herself Jade (Hannah Norris). Alistair recognises this Jade as the one from the photograph he saw online and angrily dismisses the other Jade who, it is revealed, is the real model’s sister, Claire.
            If I’ve made this setup sound befuddling then it is my poor writing, and not Corin’s, that is to blame. One for the Ugly Girls is written with clarity and economy. Its greatest strength is that it rarely strains too hard, reaching out to its audience with gentle laughs and identifiable human frailty without recourse to the sort of crude populism which too often derails bittersweet comedies of this kind. If the play has a consistent weakness, it is that it overplays its central themes and morals and doesn’t credit the audience with enough nous to work them out for themselves. The idea, particularly, that Alistair has glorified his wife so much since her death that he has stripped her of her humanness is established early and clearly; Corin doesn’t need to drive the point home by having Claire remind us of it in a multiplicity of unsubtle ways.
            Bell, a stand-up comedian, is excellent as Claire, always attuned to the script’s comedic possibilities without compromising the character’s rough-edged likeableness. There are flashes of genuine chemistry between her and Brisbane, the latter also turning in an assured performance, even if he does find too much shade and not enough light in Corin’s writing. Norris has her work cut out for her as Jade, the play’s hate figure and hence weakest role, and can’t succeed in making the model’s breathy new age buffoonery anything other than intensely annoying. It is only when the two sisters drop their respective acts that she becomes tolerable, a fault inherent in Corin’s script rather than Norris’s otherwise fine performance.
            I’m not sure if, in the end, One for the Ugly Girls really amounts to what it says on the box. Its gender politics are ultimately ambiguous, and this perhaps is its biggest surprise. Many playwrights, I suspect, would not have been able to resist the temptation to have Alistair ‘choose’ Claire over Jade: the real over the plastic, the diamond in the rough over the suntanned charlatan. Instead, the painter sends them both packing, disgusted by their deceptions. The promise of a beautiful friendship between Alistair and Claire is never realised.
It is difficult to know what to make of the play’s final moments, as Alistair’s answering machine malfunctions and his wife’s voice is erased forever. He weeps, but of course there is in this moment of acute pathos the possibility of closure, the heart-warming suggestion of a new start. The prominence of the answering machine message in the play’s denouement seems anachronistic, but it does tell us that One for the Ugly Girls, as good a title as it is, is ultimately misleading. The play is Alistair’s, not Claire’s or Jade’s. Its warning – a not unimportant one – is that sometimes to remember is in fact to forget, that to eulogise the dead can be to diminish rather than protect a treasured memory.

'The Blue Room'
5pound Theatre, Urban Spaceman Vintage, 14 February-2 March 2013. Written by David Hare. Directed by Jason Cavanagh.

Unlikely as it seems, David Hare’s 1998 two-hander The Blue Room is based on a one hundred year old play, banned in its own time, about Syphilis. The original play – Arthur Schnitzler’s Der Reigen – used a daisy chain-like sequence of sexual encounters to expose the lax morals of Viennese society at the turn of the century. Hare borrowed Schnitzler’s structure, but not the STI, for The Blue Room, a play which investigates rather than condemns sexual promiscuity. Hare is, after all, a baby boomer, a member of the first generation in history to benefit from the advent of the pill and the sexual freedoms it engendered. One oblique reference to ‘hygiene’ is, in fact, all that remains of Schnitzler’s preoccupation with sexually transmitted disease.
            Melbourne-based 5pound Theatre’s production of The Blue Room unfolds in the cramped, kooky surrounds of the Urban Spaceman Vintage second hand shop. The audience is requested to move more than once throughout the show’s ninety minute running time, following the two actors, Kaitlyn Clare and Zak Zavod, to various parts of the shop: an old walk-in safe, the changing rooms, the front window which Clare inhabits more than once (on the second occasion, on opening night, to the amused incomprehension of several passersby!)
During the play’s opening sequence in which a cab driver is seduced by a stranger, we follow the libidinous couple back to his place where, appropriately, early Elvis Presley prefaces the first of many sexual encounters. The play’s central tension – between the joys of carefree sex and the pains of infidelity and empty lovemaking – is established here, and never really goes away. In every coupling Hare gives us – the au pair and the student, the married woman and the politician, the actress and the aristocrat – the pleasures and sorrows of sex struggle for dominance over their often hapless subjects. Hare’s universe is a godless, but far from hopeless, one, within which his exquisitely drawn and generally sympathetic characters restlessly seek human rather than spiritual answers in their quests for meaning. Misery and ecstasy abound in each of their stories.
Clare is unquestionably the stronger of the two performers, effortless and, at times, eerie in her slick transitioning between characters. She establishes each briskly and authoritatively, and deftly handles the accents which range from RP English, to cockney, French and Russian. Her clipped, majestically cold but utterly sexy married woman is this production’s highpoint. Zavod is less effective, his characters and accents sketchier, but manages to impress as the pompous politician and the oily aristocrat who finds himself in thrall to Clare’s lascivious actress. It is, I think, not a coincidence that these characters appear late in the play; on opening night, at least, both Clare and Zavod took too long to make an impression, crucially failing to (ahem) pull off the first scene’s required sexual tension. Both improved immeasurably, however, gaining confidence and swagger throughout the play’s ten short scenes. Not exactly ‘pure theatrical Viagra’ as the critic Charles Spencer famously put it, but pulse-quickening stuff nonetheless.
The most serious misstep in this production is the jarringly disparate soundtrack which mixes swamp-blues, contemporary indie and classic pop. It’s as though director Jason Cavanagh has plugged in his iPod and set it to shuffle, the result of which is that the sense of consistency generated by the actors – important in a collaged play – is diluted. There are times, too, when the song selection seems to work against Hare’s script which, like all of his work, is knotty and cerebral. To reach for a familiar song every time the lights fade to black is to fill the play with empty calories it doesn’t need – theatrical carbohydrate rather than theatrical Viagra.
15 years after a brief flash of Nicole Kidman’s bum on a darkened stage instantly assured The Blue Room’s fame, the play has reached that difficult age: no longer new, not yet old enough to be considered a classic, but already past its second wind (that arguably came in Australia in 2003, in the widely-lauded Simon Philips production with Sigrid Thornton and Marcus Graham). It will endure if only because it has become something of a star vehicle. This production, however, demonstrates that it's a better play than that; closely observed, tense and taut, enigmatic but not wilfully obscure. And, yes, it's still sexy.

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