Park Theatre, London – until 11 March 2023
The latest piece to grace the stage of the Park Theatre is a curious beast, and no mistake. Taking the form of a (fictional) lecture with illustrative acted examples, a healthy dose of audience focused exercises and with a generally high level of comic content, Winner’s Curse never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be or is trying to do. That said there’s a great deal of fun to be had in the process and it is, in its way, cleverly educational about the art and process of negotiation; it’s the sort of thing that would make for an entertaining TED talk but does it work as a play? Not really.
The evening is hosted by Clive Anderson the quick thinking talk show host and panellist who, in his interactions with the audience, fires on all cylinders and demonstrates his trademark wit. When he’s not tied to the script and can improvise away he’s fine. He’s on far shakier ground when it comes to delivering the lines written for him and which move the main event along.
Although he’s supposedly playing a character (Hugo Leitski – a distinguished diplomat and peace negotiator reflecting on his life) he is basically still Clive Anderson. His main role is to narrate events and to orchestrate the various audience exercises in which negotiation skills such as haggling and striving for empathy are demonstrated. Many of these require the audience to pair up. Fine, if you’ve arrived with a partner; not so fine if you are there solo and sitting in a row of seven people; I did feel like Billy Nomates more than once.
The main thrust however is an extended flashback to when Leitski is just starting out in the diplomacy business as two eastern European countries try to come to a resolution over a strip of land – and is this really the right moment in time to be foregrounding such a dispute? Here the younger version of Leitski, dubbed Lightweight, is portrayed by Arthur Conti (son of Nina, grandson of Tom) who does a nice line in gauche naivety as he learns to dance the negotiation dance with the aid of his mentor Korsakov. The latter is a strong offering from Michael Maloney with more than a touch of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey about him, though a late bid to make him a tragic figure doesn’t really pay off.
There’s good support from Barrie Rutter as an opposing negotiator with a thing about gloves and Nichola McAuliffe regularly brings the house down as the landlady of the hotel where the negotiations are taking place. Her Geordie accent is used to great comic effect and her various gnomic utterances ensure a steady stream of laughs.
The problem is the character is largely tangential to the main plot and seems to have been stirred in simply to elevate the laugh quotient. Once again, an eleventh hour bid to make the character more involved in the resolution is too little too late. The cast is completed by Winnie Arhin whose character turns out to have more sway than might have been anticipated and Greg Lockett as an American moderator who also has his own agenda. Neither character is particularly satisfactorily drawn but Arhin and Lockett do what they can.
Indeed it is in the scripting that proceedings stumble. Written by ex-Israeli diplomat Daniel Taub, he clearly knows what he is talking about and has found novel ways to enhance audience understanding through the interactive element. However, they also produce longuers in the action which, for reasons noted above, I began to find tiresome. TV producer/writer Dan Patterson (who has worked extensively with Anderson) has been brought in, presumably to enhance the comedy element. However the writing styles do not always gel and the whole things needs to be radically edited to provide a much slicker show which gets to its points far quicker than it does. By the time the solutions to the diplomatic impasse started to appear, I found myself far more interested in the character comedy; in fact I totally lost track of the various machinations and have no clear picture of what the resolution actually was.
The other interesting aspect, to me anyway, was director Jez Bond’s decision to stage the piece in the round (or more accurately in the square). It’s not a configuration I’ve seen before at The Park and makes for a refreshing development, especially as they were also employing a revolve. I’m generally a fan of that style and here it was effective in making the audience a part of the show. Well most of them, anyway. Old bugbear (as I’ve mentioned it before), if you are going to retain the circle seats, which even in the theatre’s regular configuration make for vertiginous viewing, then do get the performers to occasionally glance our way and help us to feel included; this didn’t happen last night until the curtain call. After all a play’s performers are effectively in an extended negotiation with their audience and diplomacy is bound to go wrong if a section of those who should be involved feel excluded.