Arcola Theatre, London – until 18 November 2017
Terry Johnson’s play imagines what would happen if a professor, an actress, a ball player and a senator all met in a hotel room…
Creating an imaginary meeting between four familiar characters (even though they aren’t precisely named…), Terry Johnson’s play is a bit of a puzzler as it explores the science behind relativity, the perils of fame and their personal lives through a series of conversations that begin to feel increasingly muddled.
Everything about the play seems to flit from one subject to the next with little sense of purpose or direction that can make it difficult for the audience to keep up with – despite the best efforts of David Mercatali’s production and the enjoyable performances from the cast.
Opening with an intense conversation between the professor and the senator, the production then moves into a completely different direction with the actress bursting in on the professor, determined to talk to him about relativity and prove her cleverness. It is moments such as these which show a play that is never able to settle on what it wants to be about or what it is trying to say.
Having said that, there are still some strong moments including when the actress is conducting an experiment to discuss her understanding of the professor’s work or when she switches off her on-screen persona, refusing to be patronised – keeping the men on their toes constantly. Moments such as these really allow the audience to become engaged with the characters and the many different layers to their personalities – sometimes even generating sympathy.
There seems to be genuine warmth in the production that is really showcased by the different relationships between all of the characters, depending on the direction that conversations take. In particular, the relationship between the actress and the professor is particularly tender and affectionate in contrast with her relationship with the ball player which really shows the line between hate and love is very thin indeed.
In terms of performances, Alice Bailey Johnson as the actress (or AKA Marilyn Monroe) is very effective, switching moods from strong and independent to needy and vulnerable with great ease. She is sharp, sassy and presents a very different Marilyn then perhaps audiences are used to seeing – quite a contrast to the on screen Marilyn we are all familiar with.
Meanwhile, Oliver Hembrough as the ball player (AKA Joe DiMaggio) also delivers a strong performance as a character who is just as emotionally unstable as the actress – threatening violence one moment – then defending his wife’s honour the next. He is strong and charismatic throughout. It feels as though much more could have been done with Simon Rouse’s professor and Tom Mannion’s senator – both characters not quite as rounded as they could be.
As a concept, the focus of the play could have been refined further to give it more pace and energy as well as more clarity – particularly during the more scientific moments of the script which didn’t really fit in easily with everything else going on. But as a production, there is warmth and tenderness about it that makes the audience warm to the characters.
Insignificance continues to play at the Arcola Theatre until the 18th November 2017. For more information visit: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/insignificance/