Seven Dials Playhouse, London – until 28 January 2023
“Vivien fucking Leigh!” An opening statement that certainly makes its feelings clear, in Keith Merrill’s Irrelevant, now on at the Seven Dials Playhouse and starring stage and screen stalwart Debbie Chazen. It’s a 75-minute piece that charts the downfall of actor-turned-agent Millie Grable; she recounts her life story for a camera she’s set up in her office, all the while trying desperately to persuade her clients not to jump ship and follow her colleagues to their new agency. From RADA to Hollywood, Millie has more than enough anecdotes at her fingertips to see her through.
Unfortunately it’s not enough to dazzle the audience. Despite Chazen’s natural charisma and charm, we just aren’t given enough reason to care about Millie’s fate; though she makes the very fair point that talent isn’t always enough to guarantee an actor a fruitful career, and that producers and casting directors naturally have oft-used favourites, there’s an underlying bitterness from which she can’t escape – and that only serves to repel the audience.
Her (presumably) accidental catchphrase of “one side note” also gets incredibly irritating after a while. I don’t believe that only women can write for women, etc. but I’m also not sure that this is Merrill’s strength – which makes for a weak foundation for the entire show.
The direction is also not particularly imaginative. Presumably the play has been written into scenes and that’s why Millie keeps disappearing off behind the curtain, opening the door, and then a deafening round of applause sounds before she returns to the stage – but I’m not really sure why it needs this. It doesn’t fit with the established narrative of her filming herself and, try as Chazen might, none of the lines land as Millie heads back to her desk.
Invariably lighting up a cigarette (something that is completely unnecessary in this day and age, especially in such a small room) and mixing up some variant on a martini. The inclusion of a recording of Hedda Gabler mixes things up a bit – even if Chazen rather unconvincingly mimes along to Millie’s lines – as does a projection of Gone With The Wind on the back curtain. To give Merrill some credit, the set is impeccably designed and at least gives you something interesting to look at when Millie starts up another samey story.
Though there are some entertaining moments, and an attempt at pathos, it doesn’t come together as a finished show. Paradoxically, it could almost do with a slightly longer running time to allow greater depths to be plumbed – but as it is the play already feels far longer than 75 minutes. The weirdest choice of the whole thing is Chazen being denied a final bow; all it serves to do is to confuse the audience – and it’s borderline arrogant to think that we’re going to be that taken in by Millie’s exit. There is some potential in the show’s basic idea, but it needs work.
My verdict? Despite Debbie Chazen’s talent, a show that doesn’t live up to its potential – and feels a lot longer than it actually is.
Irrelevant runs at Seven Dials Playhouse until 28 January 2023. Tickets are available online.