Time can be a cruel father. It has not been kind to Andrew (who visitors to the West End Whingers party will be surprised to hear is actually 22 years old). Nor has it been altogether benevolent to Manuel Puig‘s Kiss Of The Spider Woman, currently previewing at the Donmar Warehouse.
Set in a Buenos Aires prison in 1976 Argentina, it tells the story of the relationship between two prisoners – one political, one gay – who share a prison cell. Perhaps its greatest dramatic accomplishment was to make the Whingers feel that they too had been banged up in the Donmar for what felt like a very long stretch indeed but was only two and a quarter hours.
The Whingers are no strangers to long sentences and – as Phil is always pointing out – many of those that Andrew writes are ridiculously, needlessly long and probably have the effect of sending readers to sleep or (by the over-use of parentheses) confusing them to the point where they give up, his use of sub-clauses being a particular source of irritation.
An Argentinian living in exile, Puig wrote the novel in 1976 and his subsequent play spawned a film and a musical. The gay subject matter and political context no doubt made it ground-breaking in the seventies and eighties and it feels like it belongs to something approaching a genre of gay/political compositions such as Another Country, Bent and various Alan Bennett plays.
But last night it just felt distinctly un-dangerous. In fact the most daring thing about it was Puig’s audacity in having nothing at all happen for the first 55 minutes during most of which Luis (Will Keen) relates to Valentine (Rupert Evans) the story of the 1942 film Cat People which did actually sound very interesting and Andrew found himself wishing he were watching that instead.
Will Keen’s monotonous camp delivery put Phil in mind of Danny La Rue with a touch of Quentin Crisp thrown in for good measure, and caused Phil’s mind to reflect that a long stretch in Holloway would have been more fun.
And really – apart from a touch of food poisoning – nothing happens until the end of the first act at which point Puig introduces a plot twist to encourage the audience to come back after the interval. This was too little, too late for Phil who – apart from yet again being treated to the delight of witnessing live food consumption on stage – found the whole thing terribly dull and applied for early parole. Andrew, however, insisted that he serve the full sentence.
But the food poisoning incident had given Phil an idea and he attempted to slip an overdose of his laudanum (without which he never leaves home) into Andrew’s interval drink in the hope of effecting a medical emergency which might at least get them out of the auditorium and into the Donmar’s hospital wing.
As Andrew chained Phil to his seat for the second act, a quick glance around the Donmar Penitentiary revealed that luckier inmates had effected some kind of Colditz break-out. Sadly Phil was awarded no time off for his good behaviour (Phil – I don’t remember you displaying any. Andrew).
His only reward was a perkier second act which – now with added narrative drive – proceeded to plod along more confidently.
Director Charlotte Westenra must have faced some interesting decisions in the staging. There are three scenes which would have been quite shocking in the seventies but now feel a bit quaint. For example, there was on-stage masturbation and anal penetration, neither of which seemed to perturb the Donmar audience unduly.
Westenra chose to conceal both acts beneath bedclothes in a manner which seemed rather coy and almost designed to convince you that neither actor was doing anything unseemly, although quite what the other options might have been we really couldn’t say, not being directors.
There was also a scene in which Valentin involuntarily evacuates his number twos into his bed but this, if anything, was even less convincing than the sex. Both Whingers perked up however, intrigued to see how Luis would clean the supposed mess up. But when he did so it was all done in the best possible taste (beneath bedclothes and without any sign or scent of the offending stool) and the Whingers felt that Westenra had missed an opportunity to introduce something visceral into the production.
As the play reached its emotional climax a nearby woman’s mobile rang… and rang… and rang. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the actors, but provided the Whingers with a highlight for the evening as they watched the poor woman struggle in vain to locate her phone and silence it. Andrew trotted up the street after her to congratulate her on her timing.
Good points? Well, there’s an effective, nicely decaying set (Ben Stones) but it was rather palatial – on a scale of a hotel suite rather than the claustrophobic police station cells that Phil is accumstomed to sobering up in.
Interestingly, the Whingers noticed a sign in the foyer announcing that merchandise was avaialble, but in their rush to leave they didn’t have time to check whether it might feature Kiss of the Spider Woman toilet paper which could be a nice little earner for the theatre and certainly something the Whingers would shell out for, wiping out their Christmas Shopping task at a stroke.