Friday, 23 September 2016

Review Good Canary

Good Canary
by Zach Helm

Imitation Of Life

Hollywood comes to Kingston Upon Thames with publicity justifiably headlining "John Malkovich Directs" in UPPER CASE above the title of the play, Good Canary. Although we should add the two leads, Skins' Freya Mavor and Harry Lloyd each get a photo and equal size lettering.

But then again, this play by Zach Helm (he gets equal size lettering below the title) has been pet project of the Hollywood star for some time. It was first performed in a French translation at the Théâtre Comedia in Paris and then, in Spanish, as El Buen Canaria at Mexico City's Teatro de los Insurgentes.

Now the Rose Theatre hosts the English language world première. Writer Jack (Lloyd) suddenly achieves the overnight fame dreamt of by many an aspiring novelist. After a glowing review by critic Mulholland (an acerbic Simon Wilson), Jack's gritty (and read for that, pretty filthy) novel shoots to top of the bestseller list.

But, in the opinion of the New York literati, his new best friends, Jack comes with baggage. Annie (Mavor), Jack's wife, is the centre of his life but she is also a bulimic junkie, hooked on amphetamines with a tendency to slice through the chauvinist small talk at deal-making dinner parties with a mixture of insight and violent insults - or rather, violent insults and insight in that order.

This is indeed a slickly directed play with Mavor giving a tour-de-force performance in a role not unlike that of Denise Gough in People, Places & Things. Lloyd as Jack manages the tricky balance as the supportive husband and ambitious career-climber. It is he who gives her the caged yellow canary (a live one on stage!) of the play's title.

The canary, we are told through words projected on the backdrop at the beginning, was used by miners to warn if the air was filling with toxic gases. However, by the end of the play, when the canary appears to have fluttered away, we weren't quite sure what exactly this signified, although we had a rough idea that Annie was equated to the caged bird.

The set by Pierre-François Limbosch is inventive and sets up its own visual discussion on the clichéd relationship of art and a tormented life. There is a clever use of projections and the backdrop is brushed with painterly daubs. Equally, there is an evocation of at least one famously anguished painting.

A café with adjacent road in New York, seen in different scenes from outside and inside, has a resemblance to Montmartre's paintings for tourists. Characters exit scenes stepping out of frames or slip out as if between the canvases of two paintings. At one point, a publisher's office and the couple's sparsely furnished apartment even slide together to resemble the archetypal poverty-stricken artist's garret.

Yet this, with the music by Nicolas Errèra and sound design by Jon Nicholls, somehow still serves to emphasize the cinematic nature of the script. We couldn't help thinking this was a movie that was never made. There's an attempt to make a virtue out of this - the use of surtitles instead of speech signifies the start of a slide into predominantly visual melodrama reminiscent of silent movies.

Sylvia (Sally Rogers), the wife of the wealthy publisher out to lure Jack into his publishing house, feels like a character which would benefit from being in a movie rather than a stage version, especially with scenes split between two rooms and groups of characters.

There is also a subtle time mash up feel. Publisher Charlie (a strikingly charismatic performance by Shepherd) could have stepped out of the 1960s. Drug dealer Jeff (Ilan Goodman combining shambling geniality and a belief he's in business rather than a criminal enterprise) could be from a 1980s' police procedural.

The dialogue of the wealthier publisher Stuart (marvellously glib Michael Simkins) apparently with the money for a lucrative advance and critic Mulholland has the feel of pre-internet unguarded comment.

We did sense, however, particularly when Stuart, having admitted that he'd not read Jack's novel, later proudly announces he has read Chapter 7 (ambiguous in the USA with its meaning of insolvency) that there might be another hidden plot to the Good Canary.

So all in all, it's well directed and acted, even if the script leaves a few too many question marks. We're still not sure what happened to that cute little bird, but TLT and her sidekick in their own cheep and cheerful way award a canary-coloured amber light for an evening with plenty of highlights.

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