THE MOTHER F**KER WITH THE HAT – National Theatre

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★★★★
National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 20 August 2015

NOW HERE’S THE ONE TO SEE.  DON’T MIND THE LANGUAGE…

If you worry about language, the clue’s in the title. More f’s and assholes than you can shake a reproving finger at. But don’t. Stephen Andy Guirgis’ play is about addiction, infidelity, drugs and a gun; it is also one of the funniest, most touching, most honestly moral things you’ll see all year. Its people are as exasperatingly sympathetic as Tennessee Williams’ characters, without the despair and with a vigorous comic poetry in their very frequent rants. They make disastrous judgements and bad calls, but reach out to us across their grimy, hooting, graffiti-ed New York struggle to demand and win our love.

Within Robert Jones’ elegant, unfussy set of revolving fire-escapes and neat sliding interiors, five flawed people enact a crisis which is neither the first nor last in their lives. Jackie – ex-con, recovering alcoholic – bounds in delightedly to his childhood sweetheart Veronica, full of hope at having seen his probation officer and landed a job. He promises “grownup plans, happiness plans, next step plans!”. But there’s a hat on the table. Some Motherf***er’s hat! He tasks her with infidelity: Veronica, however, is no meek Desdemona but a Puerto-Rican spitfire with a noseful of cocaine. She kicks off and turns the air blue. Scenes slide to posher environs, and Jackie is with his AA sponsor, Ralph, being plied with prayers, 12-step wisdoms and nutritional smoothies while Ralph’s furious wife hurls obscenities offstage and storms in to watch TV. Despite Ralph’s chirpy “No stinkin’ thinkin’, be more like Abe Lincoln!” Jackie does an unwise thing with gun and hat, and – sliding to a more recherché sceneset – throws himself on the mercy of Cousin Julio, a gloriously camp and dignified gym-bunny fiddling with empanadas and trichological advice.

I wouldn’t spoil the denouement: just know that they are all glorious, giving Guirgis’ inspired lines a rare balance of absurdity and poignancy as Indhu Rubasingham directs a US-UK cast with cracking pace. Texan Ricardo Chavira as Jackie is a solid hunk of decency, Yul Vazquez – who originated the part of Cousin Julio on Broadway – is deadpan funny and momentarily touching. Also from the US Flor de Liz Perez is a firecracker Veronica; they mesh perfectly with our own Nathalie Armin (fresh from both Dara and the Beautiful Forevers) and Alec Newman as the deceptively hip, yoga-and-smoothie Ralph.

Mesh, I say: but saying the play is an immaculate polished machine, right down to a risibly incompetent fist-fight, is the least of its. Relish the killer lines, barbed insults and almost accidental wisdoms; the complexities and rows and ambiguities and always beneath them a deep beating heart that accepts flaws and failures and rejects slick cynicism. Poor old Jackie may be a recidivist but he has his code: tempted by his mentor’s wife he pounces then retires with an anguished “What are we, Europeans or some shit?” . We earnestly wish him and barmy Veronica well on some future sunlit upland without drink, coke, or guns. Just maybe some more of cousin Julio’s disgusting green spirulina eggs. We emerge feeling strangely hopeful for the human race. .

box office 020 7452 3000 to 20 aug
rating five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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