Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 23 February 2018
Guest reviewer: Michael Adair
Here is a tale of two brothers. First, Kit Harington’s serious, intelligent and moustachioed Austin, Ivy League-educated and with a family ‘500 miles up north’, he’s come south to California to look after his mother’s house and water her plants whilst she’s in Alaska. Then his brother arrives, Lee, played by Johnny Flynn – a nomadic waster who has spent months living alone in the desert. The pair haven’t seen each other in years. They appear to have little in common – Austin’s calm and quiet order is completely at odds with Lee’s chaos. The stage seems to be set for a millionth take on the Odd Couple format.
But as the two brothers battle over a script that could make them their fortune – this becomes a play that is really about the writer, the late Sam Shepard. The two conflicting personalities on show serve to make one whole person. It’s a study in the struggle of any of us who might have a desire to be free, creative and unpredictable, but thwarted by that serious, uptight, niggling side, that needs to stick to the rules and play the game. Watching the pair reminded me of working close to a deadline – feeling the desperate need to focus and deliver, but suddenly also an overwhelming urge to procrastinate and learn everything I possibly can about how submarines work.
Here, the serious Austin tries to play by the rules, having regular meetings with a Hollywood producer to try and sell his script, which he is diligently working on. Lee is a chancer – he assuredly flogs the same producer his half-baked idea for a movie almost immediately but needs the talent of his brother to deliver a script. As the play wears on, Harrington’s once sensible Austin becomes wilder, drunker and begs his brother to take him to the desert. As he’s faced with delivering something he is not capable of, Flynn’s Lee begins to dream of normality. At one point he is seen trying desperately to phone women who might be interested in settling down with him.
Visually, this is a treat – the house is in a washed out Californian palette, all green and faded orange – with a side of dusty Levis. Set and costume designer Jon Bausor has done a terrific job. Especially when considering the late Shepard’s stage directions are so meticulous – apparently, he even went so far as to specify that the houseplants should be ‘mostly Boston ferns’.
Credit too to Joshua Carr and Ian Dickinson for light and sound respectively. The searing California sun rises and falls on the house, the moon whispers through blinds and all the while we are enveloped by the cries of crickets and the wails of coyotes. There is a Forced perspective of sorts to the house – the kitchen seems to stretch further and distort – making our characters taller and more imposing the further away from us they are.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable exploration of the human psyche that is owned by the charisma and energy of its two leads. Harrington and Flyyn are both superb – the further they drag themselves towards the conclusion the more enjoyable their performances become. Amidst fighting and screaming, there is some great dark and physical comedy, with Harrington stealing all of the neighbourhood’s toasters to help him prepare a small mountain of toast being especially amusing. But at two hours with interval – the whole thing feels excessive and a little dated in such a large theatre. At times it feels expansive where there is a need for intimacy, and there is only so far the raging turmoil of a struggling writer can take you.
Until 23rd February
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