Much like a street card conman setting out his stall, Tom Salomon’s The Grift at the Town Hall, Bethnal Green, describes itself as “a practice in the art of deception”.
It’s impressively well executed – some of the performances are a bit breathless and the plot based on the illegitimate offspring of Michael Caine and Marilyn Monroe is barmy – but the apparatus and the props feel authentic and anyone with a taste for puzzles or crosswords will have an absolute blast.
In an at turns hysterically funny and extremely touching post-show discussion, Julian Clary, co-star James Nelson-Joyce and director Christopher Renshaw talked about the legacy (and still-tangible presence) of author Stephen Clark as well as speaking in verse while cooking, onstage nudity, willy socks, life and death and much more.
Trafalgar Studios, London
Written by Stephen ClarkDirected by Christopher Renshaw
It is a rare treat these days to see a play written for its star. So it is with Le Grand Mort, penned by Stephen Clark and created specifically with Julian Clary in mind. Amidst a whirlpool of emotions, the unintended and unspoken sadness of the night is that Clark tragically died last year, never seeing the play brought to life.
Clark has written an exquisite piece that places Clary as Michael, a 50-something architect with a lifestyle that’s a fusion of Hannibal Lecter with, for those who can remember back that far, Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet. (Younger readers may prefer to context Come Dine With Me.) Indeed as the play opens and Clary’s cookery commences, the air inside the compact Trafalgar 2 becomes quickly thick with the scent (stench?) of frying onions.
The action never leaves Michael’s kitchen, a fully functioning showpiece of a set from designer Justin Nardella, in which the preening professional is preparing pasta puttanesca (literally whore’s pasta) as he awaits the arrival of the much younger, rough-trade Tim. We learn that this is the first potentially romantic liaison of the two men after a period of pub-based flirting, but with a rack of chic kitchen knives ever prominent, menace is clear from the outset.
Clark’s writing has a cadence that’s rarely found these days, conjuring up images from a prose that is as assonant as it is meticulous. The whole piece runs for a non-stop 90mins, the first third of which is virtually a Clary monologue. One could almost be witnessing a grown-up version of The Joan Collins Fan Club such is Clary’s wit and persona – even if the patter he regales is a gruesome comment on death and necrophilia.
The arrival of James Nelson-Joyce’s Tim catapults the evening into a 21st century Sleuth. We learn that little of what the young man says is true – however it is clear from both his perfect physique and razor sharp wit that matches Michael word for word, that he is irresistible to the architect.
Clark’s writing is graphic and as his narrative unfolds to encompass incestuous paedophilia it is clear that his two protagonists are deeply damaged souls. But whilst the play’s language and its acting soar, it is hard to care too much for either man – even if Nelson-Joyce’s impressive nudity does briefly shift one’s attention from cook to cock.
The performances here are unquestionably first class and while Le Grand Mort may not be quite the comedy it set out to be, treat yourself to a large glass of Montepulciano and savour the work that’s on offer. Clark truly proves that there’s no fool like an old fool.
Runs to 28 OctoberPhoto credit: Scott Rylander
The Color Purple’s book, movie and musical have all told the extraordinary story of a Celie, a brutally oppressed woman who against all odds, overcomes racism, abuse and misogyny to find her unique place in 20th century America. Not seen in London since the Menier’s sensational production in 2013, the musical returned to the capital this week for a one night only concert-staged fundraiser.