Review – Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 16 February 2010

The Whingers’ heads have been turned more than a Linda Blair demonic possession in recent weeks. But having spent far more time hob-nobbing than actually watching plays, it was down to earth with a resounding thump last night after all their recent star-schtumphing.

The novelty of not being pestered by celebrities (well, almost*) almost made the prospect of sitting with ordinary members of the public at the  Donmar Warehouse seem attractive. And Lanford Wilson‘s Serenading Louie, about which the Whingers knew next to nothing, seemed an ideal way to re-enter their normal, everyday, humdrum lives.

And Lanford Wilson‘s Serenading Louie is about normal lives, or rather what goes on when couples have been together for a while, reached their thirties and begin to think, “This can’t be it”. There are two marriages in this case: old college friends Alex (Jason Butler Harner)  and Carl (Jason O’Mara) and their respective spouses Gabrielle (Charlotte Emmerson) and Mary (Geraldine Somerville).

It’s the early 1970s in suburban Chicago, the Ayckbournish conceit here is that the two homes of the two couples are played out on the same rather stylish set (Peter McKintosh; Andrew particularly coveted the ewer and the drinking glasses). The clue to which home we’re in is cleverly indicated by characters dropping their house keys into a bowl. The Whingers haven’t dropped their keys into a bowl since the early 1970s either, but that’s another story altogether.

The play opens with Alex restlessly watching TV, neatly indicated by a projected image of the reflected TV screen on the window behind him. Phil liked Harner’s performance of tired disillusionment, it was exactly how he was feeling after the Whingers’ previous night’s shenanigans.

But Act 1 proved rather dull. Alex’s wife Gabrielle is nervy and irritating and rather awkwardly she doesn’t finish her sentences. It didn’t quite come off at first. You could almost see the stage directions written on the page. Carl and Mary have other problems. Mary (who wears a fabulous coat that wouldn’t have been out of place in Boeing Boeing) is having an affair and Carl knows, but Mary doesn’t know he knows.

And that’s about it. Andrew nodded off quite quickly and missed nothing. At the interval it seemed it was just another play with the American Dream on the pathologist’s slab again. Even worse, yet another of Twenty-Ten’s American plays where the characters address the audience. Arrrrrgh!

But after a bit of air at the interval Andrew perked up considerably. Much more happens in Act two, a drunken evening with both couples, some synchronicity as both Whingers’ scribbled “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf without the laughs” in their notepads.

The acting is top notch. Phil thought Emmerson found her form, Somerville is subtly brittle, but it was O’Mara who most impressed the Whingers who were dusting off rarely-used-yet-unimaginative epithets for his performance such as “outstanding” and “superb”.

But despite the excellent performances and the uncomfortably tense atmosphere of the set up, the Whingers weren’t overly keen on the play. Could it be because their thirties are so far behind them or simply that the Whingers’ lives never made much sense anyway?. SL felt a bit like the suburban angst of Desperate Housewives on a low-light with a touch (but not enough) of Phil’s favourite TV show, Mad Men, thrown in.

The Whingers thought they had never seen a play by Wilson before. Andrew hadn’t even heard of him. But then Phil discovered he’d seen a brilliant John Malkovich in the incredible Burn This at Hampstead when that theatre used to produce interesting things and he still remembers that production.  The Whingers can’t say they’ll remember Serenading Louie in 20 years, but then they probably won’t remember anything by then.

*Footnote: The Whingers were collared by Phil’s lookeelikee the amiable Donmar Artistic Director Michael Grandage at the interval who took time to discuss, last night’s awards, the Broadway transfer of Red (we didn’t get an invite to its New York opening night party but live in hope) and a musical, amongst other things. He is a man who clearly knows which side his bread is best buttered as the conversation perked the Whingers up considerably for the second half.

What is it with successful directors these days? Like Matthew Warchus and Rupert Goold, he’s very good-looking, charming and well turned out. What happened to the scruffy, beardy, corduroy wearing directors of old? As Phil remarked (only half jokingly) about Grandage after their meeting, “It’s just like looking in a mirror”. Andrew imagines Grandage was in turn thinking, “It’s just like looking at that painting I have in the attic”.


The director of Serenading Louie, Simon Curtis also directed Cranford, which brought a smile to Andrew’s lips but the lack of bonnets saw him awarding a weak three (and this only in a reluctant upgrade from a two in recognition of the performances). Phil thought it a strong three but will concede to Andrew in this instance and not let Andrew forget it.

4 Responses to “Review – Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. A Clown Says:

    Hmm it was a weak two for me, it was all just so annoying. Good acting for sure, but a very weak play and far too many dramatic tricks for my liking. Not even the squeezy lemon could save it.

  2. Gretchen Says:

    Explain to me again why addressing the audience is so offensive? And is it particularly American? Didn’t Shakespeare do an awful lot of that? “Now is the winter of our discontent” etc. etc.?

    Just wondering.

  3. Crandal Says:

    It’s by no means a major play but Lanford Wilson is a major American playwright who should be better known over here. His plays tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves and this one is no different. I think the performances were pretty terrific and I think the Donmar should be commended for producing it and it certainly is more powerful than that twaddle over at the National – Really Old Like 45.

  4. Rev Stan Says:

    Great acting but weak play. Irritatingly long set up in the first half to the point where I just wanted them to get on and do themselves in or whatever it was all obviously leading up to.
    The best thing I can say is that is made me feel better about my own 30-something life but then I could watch Eastenders or countless other TV drama serials to feel that.
    I would have gone for a rating of three glasses of so-so traditional pub wine or two and a half glasses from the mid-price range in one of those trendy pubs that has a wine list.

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