Julian Eaves reviews Patrick Marmion’s Keith? now playing at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston
Honestly, the way British theatres carry on, you’d think Moliere had never written another play. In fact, he wrote many, and – as yet another ‘version’ of his late, final masterpiece ‘Tartuffe’ rolls off the assembly line – one is beginning to wish that a few more local producers, and writers, would take the trouble to turn their attention to them. After all, Jean-Baptiste waited his entire career before creating this deceptively simple and apparently easy-to-understand comedy of illusions. Yet, it is ‘Tartuffe’, once again, that gets worked over in this latest Off-West-End offering from very East-End Hackney, the tale of an imposter cleric who inveigles his way into the affections – and fortunes – of a grotesquely dim haut-bourgeoise family, succeeds in wresting from them their entire wealth and domicile, before being trounced at the last moment in his revolutionary attack by a kind of deus ex machina restitution of the status quo. A few decades later the real revolution would arrive, but that was for the future.
The script itself, by Patrick Marmion (who has scored well here recently with his plays ‘Great Apes’ and ‘The Divided Laing’) is very funny: while I was waiting in the bar for the show to begin, I read the first act and it had me laughing out loud… repeatedly.. no matter how much I tried to suppress the reaction. And the start of the staged result in the main space, this production begins well enough, too: Joseph Millson puts in a classy turn as the title figure. He cuts a rakishly handsome – and contemporary – figure, in finely woven braids and ‘ethnic’ togs, bare-chested (the otherwise empty parquet floor design is by Jemima Robinson, so perhaps the costuming is her doing – if not, thank Supervisor Bex Kemp). But it is in his excellent command of comedy that Millson scores; there is not a second that passes which he does not totally inhabit and control, with expertly and faultlessly accurate decisions made every single beat of the way in when to move, when to stay still, when to look, when to move his mouth, when to gesture with a hand, when to alter his expression, and so on. It is a masterclass in comic acting.
The casting of the rest of the troupe is less lucky. Natalie Klamar does rise to some fine comedic heights, late in the second act, when she, as daughter of the house, Roxy, goes on the warpath against the interloper, but it is a long wait for her to wade through a curiously blue-stockinged characterisation of someone who the author’s programme note reminds me can be ‘actually quite superficial’. Similarly, the powerhouse mother of hers, Sara Powell’s Veena, seems quite out of place in such light, frivolous fare. Lizzie Winkler, as the ostensibly Brazilian maid, Anna, gets into similar difficulties with finding the right tone, or indeed the right accent – which comes and goes. As for rich dad, Morgan, Mark Jax is well-meaning but neither buffoon nor dullard enough to evoke much mirth. And as for the other outsider, Roxy’s oddly intended Mo, Aki Omoshaybi is all winning grins, yes, but they just don’t make us believe that they conceal any vacuity at all, and so also fail to be funny – the biggest laugh he gets in the evening is something he does with his costume, which says it all.
Who is responsible for this? I suppose we have to lay some of the blame at the feet of fairly novice director Oscar Pearce, and this is a shame. He is bright and talented and will surely recover from this slight set-back. His riotous farce about Laing was jolly good fun: I remember it with great affection. But that play was all about ideas, and their ludicrous power over people. This is a totally different work: Moliere actually loves his characters, while at the same time despising and mocking their pretensions. There is an important distinction to be made there. You have to find that love for the people, or the comedy doesn’t work. And I never, ever believed for a moment that anyone but Keith in this production knew the meaning of the word: his flirtatious interaction with the audience sets the seal on it more than his claims (are they to be taken seriously?) that he is some sort of reincarnation of Dionysos. He alone has the capacity to speak directly – and often – to our hearts.
Thus, Millson here steals not only other people’s money but the entire show. Playing at least two sharply contrasting roles – each with consummate aplomb – he alone knows how to ‘point’ each line in the direction of just how much or how little laughter he wants from it; with the others, apart from the occasional flash of good luck here or there, such consistency of response is not forthcoming – not from me, nor from the audience around me. The rest of the cast certainly rattle through their lines quickly enough, almost too fast too hear them: and that is the problem: they never seem to give any indication that they have (a) thought about what they really mean, nor (b) have understood themselves what it is they are trying to do, let alone say. Or, rather, they don’t seem to ‘feel’ the text much. And so, neither does the audience. It plays to our heads, but it doesn’t really move us. And Moliere should do both. These are all intelligent, experienced actors, so how has all this gone awry?
True, there are also howling gaps in the dramaturgy: one kept sensing that a scene here or there had just been cut, that entire pages of dialogue had fallen on the rehearsal room floor, never to be retrieved, without a thought – or insufficient thought – about the damage that would do the flow, to the precious verisimilitude of the action. Time and again, actors have to come on stage without having any adequate preparation to signal important developments, and so we kept switching off, asking ourselves, ‘Wait a minute… how did that happen?’, and so became distracted from concentrating on the story. That is fatal in a play. If the audience’s attention wanders away from what is happening in front of them, it is very hard to get it back. If this surmise about cuts is correct – and I have no way of knowing if it is – then I would like to know who asked for them. And why.
So, if you feel in need of another run through this already very well run-through drama, then go. You will see one very good performance, and it really is his show, which justifies – if only barely – the star-rating. If not, order the script from Aurora Metro Books and enjoy a good laugh.
Until 9 March 2019