“Why are we doing this?” grumped Andrew, plaintively.
“Who is she?” he continued, wailing.
Phil explained patiently: “She was in those pirate films, Bend it Like Beckham and that fim you saw with James McAvoy in a vest.”
Well, James McAvoy always gets to wear a vest in every film so that didn’t narrow it down and Andrew wasn’t convinced that this “Keira Knightley” was someone he needed to see.
There are queues outside the theatre just to get in. Then there are bag checks with added security questions :”Have you got a camera?” (which seems a rather redundant question these days since everyone has a camera on their phone). And since they can’t get the audience in on time and the curtain is late up you would think they might use the waiting time to remind the audience to turn them off. Ah well.
Martin Crimp‘s present day version of what is apparently Molière’s greatest comedy updates the play to contemporary London. Damian Lewis‘s Alceste is a disillusioned playwright at odds with the vanity and vacuity of the world around him. But contrary to everything he rails against he falls madly in love with an American movie star Jennifer (Keira Knightley) who initially appears to give shallowness new depths. Spot the irony? Yes, well fortunately this version does too.
The whole hoopla surrounding Knightley’s nightly appearance on the London stage is knowingly sent up. This is irony writ large. Crimp’s semi-verse version hammers it home. “I don’t just hate people in the public eye, I hate those who watch it too.” whinges Alceste echoing Andrew. “Your face is just one more image in the public eye.” he moans at Jennifer. And getting one of the few really big laughs of the evening: “People speak highly of a pile of shit if they get dressed up and paid £50 to see it”. There’s even a theatre critic Covington (Tim McMullan – very amusing), who is a budding playwright but couldn’t possibly be based on anyone we know, could he?
But, you ask, what of KK? Well she is, of course very beautiful, worryingly stick-thin but surprisingly not wooden. If you’ve come here expecting to see the Whingers littering the place with phrases like “displaying more wood than Tiger” you’ll leave disappointed. This is her stage debut (and a very early preview) and she copes with the spotlight with surprising confidence and a pretty convincing American accent.
However, after a reasonably promising start, before she appears and as you get your ear round the sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating verse, the laughs do stop once she comes on. Perhaps the audience are too busy staring at her, thinking “this girl needs to eat” but things do take a dip.
No doubt certain critics will hark back to Nicole Kidman’s West End Stage debut and be reaching for the smelling salts and honing their epithets. But not us. To be fair the Whingers were both suffering from heavy colds and struggling. Andrew dropped off in the first act and dropped out before the second declaring rather miserably, “I’ve got the gist”.
Did he miss much? Well he missed Knightley dancing on a sofa in paniers as there’s a 17th century fancy dress party in the second act which gives the cast the opportunity to get into proper Molièresque frockery. There are some pretty impressive wigs and they aren’t even by Richard Mawbey who’s been treading water on Red.
But a scene in this particular preview (Tuesday) had another peculiar layer of irony. Copies of the night’s Evening Standard are brought on stage (a very cheap prop these days) and characters read one of the articles. The cast, however, were very careful not to open the paper at page three which was almost entirely devoted to audience reaction to Knightley’s stage debut: “A Knightley to remember…Keira dazzles in West End stage debut“. Phil couldn’t concentrate on the scene. As various copies were strewn around the set surely one of them would fall open at the page? Or had it been artfully excised? What will they do the night after the play opens to the press and Knightley’s face is no doubt plastered on the front page? Resort to The Metro?
Thea Sharrock has assembled an excellent cast as if to cover up the cracks should the star not be up to it. Lewis holds things together rather nicely and has a good light comedy touch, Tara FitzGerald‘s acting teacher Ellen is amusing and Dominic Rowan, Kelly Price and Nicholas Le Prevost give fine support. So why was the whole thing ultimately underwhelming? The applause at the end was fairly muted despite one man (American one assumes) ovating in the centre of the front row.
Of course this is a real money-spinner. Programmes are an outrageous £4 (and not even embossed). There’s lots of money to be made at the bars, which is presumably why there’s an interval. Without it the show would be much better. Phil worked out that if they cut the break it would have been as short as Mike Bartlett’s Cock. (Andrew, can we really make another gag on Mike Bartlett’s Cock? – Phil) (Phil, yes Mike Bartlett’s Cock will run and run).
“Seats for this glittering comedy range from £20 to £49.50, but why not spoil yourself and enjoy the very best seats in the house, our Premium Seats available in the stalls or dress circle, for £65. Mark that special occasion with our bespoke Celebration Packages available at £85 per person offering: Premium seat, access to an exclusive private area, an interval glass of champagne, souvenir programme and a collector’s limited edition show poster.”
That’s all very well but the Whingers are on a budget. There was no way this was going to end up on TKTS. So we did something completely uncharacteristic: in order to get an idea of what the show would look like from space we bought seats in row D of the balcony (that’s the fourth of the four tiers of seating) for £25. We’ve never been up there before and frankly it looks as though the theatre managers don’t get up there much either as the ledges at either side of the auditorium were very dusty indeed. We feel it only fair to mention this as it may account for our distinct lack of engagement. Why do people even bother buying seats that far away from the stage? It’s rubbish.