Julian Eaves reviews Afterglow by S. Asher Gelman now playing at the Southwark Playhouse, London.
Southwark Playhouse, Large
11th June 2019
There was once a cartoon in the satirical magazine, Punch, dating from the era when smoking in public spaces was becoming an anti-social habit: it featured a restaurant filled with couples at tables, above whom a sign on the wall said, ‘Thank you for not discussing your relationship'.
I often wish that Punch were still in operation and spreading its humour and wisdom to the world because there are clearly some who are in need of its ministrations. One such individual is S. Asher Gelman, the author of this epistle for the stage that now graces the large space at Newington Causeway with its not very trumpeted European premiere. It is a very simple tale, where three blokes – when they are not laboriously getting into and out of their many, many, many changes of clothes – spend 90 long minutes talking about very little else beyond what that cartoon sign in Punch once forbade. The characterisation is as skimpy as their wardrobe, and anyone who saw ‘Inheritance' is going to wonder how this play emerged from the same culture, the same city. Well, it's not the work of the same pair of hands, is it?
However, if you think this is going to be your sort of thing, you can probably stop reading at this moment, because that is where you and I are going to part company. But, before I get carried away with invective, let's try and see if from the play's point of view. It has good intentions. An honest look at how people configure their lives, going after promiscuity and one-night-stands while neurotically hankering for fidelity and monogamy. This is familiar territory but could be mined for something interesting we haven't all heard many times before. Or, if you live under a stone, perhaps you've never heard it. All that would be required was for the writer to have some wit or insight into this area that would make it seem fresh and engaging.
What is – initially – rather attractive about this show are the undressed bodies of the three male characters: a bourgeois couple, Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney) doing some very high speed and very simulated fucking with whom we later discover is their younger and not remotely affluent pick-up, Darius (Jesse Fox). They have very lean, very clearly defined physiques, with ripplingly slender muscles, not much body hair, attractive faces (which all resemble one another), and an athletic, lissom way of moving that bespeaks years upon years of drill in the gym or sports field or pitch or court, or all of those. They smile a lot, hug in a demonstrative and showy manner, and kiss – often under running water in an onstage shower – with purposeful aggression, which nonetheless contrives to communicate consensuality as well as an impression of studied, calculated self-affirmation. Got it?
If you're laughing at any of this, I assure you won't when you see it in the theatre, because everyone takes it very seriously. Of course, the play – in Tom O'Brien's equally poised and pretty production – wants to make it quite clear that these sights are not being served up to us out of any low desire to titillate. Far from it. We have to value these individuals and pay attention to how they live their lives. So, we also get to see them – every time a scene stutters to a halt – not only getting wet but also drying off and getting into and out of umpteen different outfits (I lost count of how many – it must be a nightmare for the boys to keep track of which frocks they're supposed to be donning at any given point in this mundane drama). While these changes are in progress (and, honestly, they should ring them up with signs like they do at boxing matches), to keep our minds focussed on the high-energy lifestyles of these personages, we get rather dated club dance music (think sounds from 25 years ago) blasted into our ear-drums with self-important brio. To accompany that, the talents of experienced lighting designer David Howe are summoned to whirl about in a ‘club-like' flourish. Quite what Mr Howe thought of having to trot out that effect I would really not like to know. At any rate, during the run of the ‘scenes from a three-way' themselves, we get to see him not putting a foot wrong in lighting everything exquisitely. Sex, as Noel Coward once pointed out, is really all a matter of lighting, and with a top designer on hand, it's got to be good!
I would like to say the same for Libby Todd's handsome design. It looks great: the very epitome of a modish loft in New York City where (naturally) these bared souls mark out their days. Problems begin to arise, however, with the frequent and elaborate scene changes, where her materials reveal themselves to be cumbersome and time-consuming to handle. The approach of the termination of each successive scene (and they get increasingly easy to predict) is therefore wedded to an equal and proportionate dread of the frantic ASM'ing that these lads are also required to execute, in a kind of mute choreography of the over-worked, while we – the overly patient audience – get zapped by another CIA-style dose of hideous pop music. (Fasten your safety-belts, everybody…. and put in your ear-plugs!) Joel Price is the one we have to thank for this onslaught in the sound department. Let that be known. He is just following the director's orders, naturally.
Then we come to the even more difficult subject of the performances. The accents seem convincing (to non-American ears like mine), but the script is written in that obvious, shallow, plywood manner of soooo many creative writing class exercises, with nothing to distinguish it from the inconsequential mutterings of soap opera characters, filling in the minutes between valuable commercials. This makes life very awkward for our three actors. They don't get given much to work with. And the instinct of British trained performers is to trust and respect the text, which they duly ‘deliver' in the cut-and-dried manner that politicians keep using to refer to Brexit. But, of course, we know that there is so much more to it than that. And there is. This is written for American actors, who are schooled entirely differently: at their best, and this play enjoyed a very long run in the little Davenport Theater in NYC (I keep wanting it to have been named after Dawn Davenport, but I'm probably over-reaching myself there…). I can imagine US professionals being able to dig into the sub-text of each banally uttered moment and play that, as opposed to the limp, colourless words.
But these three guys don't work like that. They play it with altogether far too much reverence for the word qua word. Each phrase is perfectly enunciated, each syllable given just the right weight and duration, each pause expertly judged, and so on. They're a joy, as artists. Ironically, all this care and diligence doesn't get them anywhere nearer the heart of what this play is about. It can't. You have to forget the script and just play the feeling of the moment in American drama, otherwise, you just get a parade of words, and that is what happens here, and I never believed in a single minute of it.
That makes the whole experience of being in the theatre really torturous. It's bad enough having to sit through those interminable scene changes and be deafened by a grimly narrow collection of samples, but it is just a pity that this flimsily written type of script cannot survive transplantation into the rigours of good British theatre practice. It becomes a mere annoyance. If you want to really enjoy this play, I think you're going to have to go and see it done by Americans, because these three wonderful actors are sadly totally miscast for this text (casting, Anne Vosser) and not helped out by a production that, while looking impressive, just gets in their way.