Julian Eaves reviews Holy Shit, a new play by Alexis Zegerman now playing at the Kiln Theatre (Formerly the Tricycle Theatre)
10th September 2018
It’s not every day that you have to cross a picket line to go to a theatre, but that’s what happened to patrons at the gala opening of the totally refurbished Tricycle Theatre up the Kilburn High Road last night. And the reason for the hurdle? It’s not just the building that has been remodelled: the place even has a new name, The Kiln – a contraction of Kilburn, indeed, but a novelty that is the cause of some contention.
Perhaps the move is deliberate. After all, the Tricycle (located in what had been previously known as the Forresters’ Hall, a building of early 20th century origin) was between 1980 and the present a by-word for radical and challenging drama, with an outlook that was bold, innovative and daring. Nothing wrong in continuing that tradition, perhaps.
Now, having been visited and remoulded by the brilliant firm of Chapman Architects, the site is a veritable poem of light, space and exquisite detail, ultra-modern and luxurious in ambience, warm and cosy, and yet also palatial and cool. It is a new temple to the art of theatre, and a flamboyant statement in a corner of London not famous for such things. If the local neighbourhood wants a message of hope and ambition for the future, it need look no further than the extensive walks and comfortable booths of the front of house areas and the handsome auditorium with its pearly acoustics (Sound, Alexander Caplan), gorgeous lighting (by Oliver Fenwick) and uninterrupted sight lines. There is also a yet to be inaugurated studio space – the James Baldwin, a cinema, and other rooms besides. What a treat!
Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham directs here and has programmed for this rebirth an equally ambitious brand new play by local talent Alexis Zegerman. She has written a taut four-hander set in the not quite as upwardly mobile as it would like milieu that finds itself just outside the doors of the building on the streets of Kilburn. Here, neighbours Nick and Juliet Obasi rub up and down and sideways with their fellow metropolitans, Sam Green and Simone Kellerman, through two-and-a-half hours of densely written excursions through all the problems and some of the joys of being present day urban, forty-something parents.
Central to all these issues is the vexed question of schools: both families have girls – best friends – and both find themselves competing for limited places at the Outstanding Ofsted rated Roman Catholic infants at the end of the Sam and Simone’s road; the Obasi’s have a harder time of it. Matters are pointedly complicated by the fact that, while Juliet is a devout Catholic and her husband is Christian as well as Ibo in matters of faith – a pragmatic compromise invented by missionaries to Africa, Sam and Simone are ethnically Jewish: while he professes spiritual atheism, but guards against losing the identity of his heritage, she throws the bombshell of deciding she wants to embrace Catholicism in an effort to charm (if not hoodwink) the school admissions panel and get their princess into the best school going.
In the casting of Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Simone, we have someone who even looks rather like a glamorous cross between Mrs Thatcher and Dame Shirley Porter at home in her designer-designed townhouse (a suavely versatile set by Robert Jones, admonished with brickwork that you will see in the surrounding streets, and he dresses his cast with comparable verisimilitude – Costume Supervisor is Johanna Coe). Her erstwhile Oxbridge chum, Juliet Obasi (Claire Goose) is every inch her match, right down to the killer shoes, upon which she stands and turns and paces with devastating effectiveness. They have lots of scenes where they go head-to-head in the best soap opera-meets-Ayckbourn-meets-Alan Bennett style of contemporary theatre. There is even a good batch of West End-friendly hymns.
The men fare not quite as well. Like Jane Austen, Zegerman does not have an ear for the male voice. No matter, we are in a woman’s world, and that’s that. Some of the most revelatory moments come in clashes of the sexes: in fact, the most telling line, the one moment in the play where the whole audience gasped and paused in their thoughts, realising that this author might well be one day fated to achieve greatness, Simone retrieves dope-head hubby Sam’s stash from its hiding place and announces she is going to bin it; he asks how she knew where it was, and she replies, simply, ‘It’s the only thing you ever put away’. It is in writing dialogue like that, in my humble view, that Zegerman is going to become stunning. It’s magic. This is where the author can get her characters saying to each other what they want to say, and not what she wants them to say.
For much of the rest of the play, especially the highly chatty first half, we get a kind of ‘megaphone theatre’, where the people we see on stage are quite patently voicing the opinions and Weltanschauung of their creator, in no particular order, and often for no particularly observable reason. This is the bane of every new writer with thousands of things to say: it is hard to shape and control the material. Still harder it is to fashion comedy out of serious fare, as is the aim here. Zegerman is to be congratulated for her brave moves thus far, and the Kiln (RIP Tricycle) for encouraging and promoting this vital new voice. Right now, this work is more food for the head than the heart, but there is nothing to be ashamed of in that.
Until 6 October 2018