National Theatre, Dorfman – until 28 January 2023
Is British new writing in deep trouble? With the Arts Council defunding venues such as the Hampstead Theatre, the Donmar and the Gate, and past masters such as Terry Johnson underperforming, the signs are not very good. But what about the National Theatre, the country’s flagship — can it step up to fill the gap? Well, judging by recent flops such as Moira Buffini’s Manor, I wouldn’t bank on it. The problem with this venue, and the Royal Court for that matter, is that they stage plays that are good ideas, but need much more work, more editing, more development. April De Angelis’ latest, despite a good showing by its Cold Feet star Fay Ripley, exemplifies the problem.
Kerry Jackson is a comedy about the title character (Ripley), an Essex-born Thatcher-loving 50something who has just opened a tapas bar in Walthamstow Village. She says she’s a gobby woman, and to call her politically incorrect is pure understatement. A Leave voter, conservative supporter and bundle of unpleasant prejudices, she threatens to shop her black chef Athena because she has dodgy immigration status, and insults Will, a young homeless man who, ironically, shares most of her right-wing views. When romance comes knocking on the restaurant door, in the shape of middle-class philosophy teacher Stephen and working-class ex-cop Warren, Kerry prefers the former because he is able to write a good review of her venue.
The clash between the mouthy but energetic Kerry and the quiet, well-spoken Stephen is potentially interesting, especially with the addition of his Gen-Z daughter Alice. While the working-class characters despise Will, the middle-class ones want to help him, and more so when they discover that he reads books. But as Kerry and Stephen, who is a recent widower, fall in lust, their relationship is only superficially explored, and attention is distracted both by everyone’s focus on Will, and by the arrival of Warren. It begins to looks as if the play doesn’t quite know what it is meant to be doing. It this, if nothing else, it is hilariously successful.
Billed as an examination of gentrification, Kerry Jackson has disappointingly little to say about this subject. Its main characters have clichéd opinions and stereotypical attributes, and De Angelis spends a lot of time getting them to tell us who they are, what they think and how they feel. Exposition is one thing; elaborate telegraphing to the audience quite another. It’s awful writing. Did no one ask the playwright about showing, not telling, about subtext and complexity? And, hello, it’s 2022, so why does the only black character have to be a migrant? London’s black population has been here for generations — and some have been successful in hospitality — so why reach for the easiest stereotype?
It would be tedious to list all the other clichés, and perhaps this wouldn’t matter very much if the comedy was funny. Okay, there are one or two good lines, and some nicely vulgar observations, but good comedy should make your heart break, as it often does in De Angelis’s own 2011 play Jumpy. Here it just sets my teeth on edge. I am also puzzled about how a disrespectful joke about a Polish builder, which I first heard told on stage about a black man 20 years ago, managed to make the final cut. Without comic energy, the evening soon begins to drag, and no amount of vegan-shoe jokes can save it.
This is very sad because the project behind the play, to tell incisive stories about our contemporary social set-ups, with a focus on class, is a really good one. In fact, one good point is actually made about voting Leave and then trying to source food from the Continent. But to develop such ideas you need to create credible characters in convincing situations, and that simply is not the case here. Nor is there any real dramatic resolution after a full-length play whose plotting is leaden and whose dialogues are charmless when they are not declamatory. By end, it feels as if the playwright has given up on going beyond caricature and settles instead for some weak, and utterly unbelievable, soft feminism.
Indhu Rubasingham’s lackluster production, on a symbolically twin-sided set designed by Richard Kent, doesn’t help, and only really comes alive when the music is switched on, and the characters dance, although the stereotype of middle-class tight-arsed inhibition remains uncontested. Needless to say, Ripley has oodles of stage presence and charisma — she lights up her scenes and has most of the best lines. As for the others, Michael Gould searches in vain for Stephen’s inner life, while Kitty Hawthorne makes the most of the underwritten part of Alice, as does Michael Fox for Will. More convincing are Gavin Spokes’s Warren and Madeline Appiah’s Athena, but don’t hold your breath — if this is the best that flagship new writing can offer then I can only despair.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
Kerry Jackson is at the National Theatre until 28 January.
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