Thwarted love between geriatrics

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM


Park Theatre, until 18 August


Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep until 18 August

This is brilliant. The new play by Oliver Cotton, a 69-year-old actor, is set in New York in 1986. An ageing couple, Joe and Ellie, are practising their ballroom dancing when Joe’s maverick brother Billy comes crashing through the front door. The cops are after him. He was holed up in a Florida hotel when he spotted the Nazi brute who tortured them all at a death-camp during the war. He shot the bastard dead and left him floating in a swimming pool in front of hundreds of gawping witnesses. Then he ran for it. He’s not even sorry. He’s pleased he did it.

This is gripping stuff. What next? A hundred options blaze through the mind, not least the possibility that Billy has mistakenly slotted an innocent lookalike. But Cotton fails to elaborate on his marvellous opening. He throws in a couple of surprises in the second half but these twists have no bearing on the main story: a bullet-ridden Nazi in a Florida pool and a manhunt closing in on Billy and his bewildered in-laws. Billy doesn’t even get to hide under the floorboards. What a disappointment. Having dodged its thrilling moral complexities, the script turns into a big fat slice of sugary nostalgia about thwarted love between geriatrics.

The production, in the compact new Park Theatre, is serviceable enough but a few holes appear in the fabric. Notably with the accents. Billy, Joe and Ellie are Austrian Jews who lived in Linz until early adulthood and later became American citizens, so their speech patterns should be delicate, many-layered structures that carry the traces of Teutonic, Hebrew and Atlantic-English influences. But not here. They all sound like Popeye. Only Maureen Lipman (Ellie) adds some Germanic flavourings to her speech. And she performs with far more depth and conviction than her fellow Popeyes. Harry Shearer (Joe) has done so much voice-over work for The Simpsons that he seems mistrustful of the stage. He’s like a kitten venturing on to a frozen pond. He moves without assurance and he can’t harmonise his physical gestures with his emotions. And John Bowe (Billy) yells every line as if he’s commanding an air-sea rescue operation during a hurricane.

Oliver Cotton writes fluently (almost too fluently, in fact, and large chunks of the script could be profitably dropped) and his next play, if more artfully constructed, could turn into the breakthrough he deserves.

Shakespeare’s Globe makes a big profit every year without taking a penny in public subsidy. How? It has a better business model than any artistic enterprise on earth: it offers plays by the world’s foremost literary genius presented in an authentic style. This means it has no need to market itself. Our thirst for great art does the job on its behalf. So when the Globe says it’s discovered a new dramatist so talented that all Shakespearean productions have been suspended while the prodigy’s efforts are exhibited to the public, one is bound to sit up and take notice.

The play, by Samuel Adamson, is set in London in the 1690s and the action is accompanied by Purcell’s music. And I’m glad to report that Samuel Adamson can write as well as Shakespeare. Well, OK, let me rephrase that with different punctuation. Samuel Adamson can write — as well as Shakespeare. His play is a flung-together scrapbook of gags, sketches and semi-historical blarney written in rhyming couplets and featuring characters with ponderously silly names: Lady Victim, Sir Cockmerry, and so on. If Adamson was aiming for quaint, flashy and self-regarding artifice he succeeded brilliantly.

The Globe audience indulged his work and affected to find its arch triteness charming and sweet. I wasn’t so sure. Apart from the disjointed structure and the spewy rhetoric (‘our fragments, scenes and pageants are arguments for the trumpet’s eloquence when words founder’), the play is marred by its wilful crudeness and its addiction to expletives. The Globe in midsummer is a happy, festive retreat where a barrage of effing, buggering and shitting is about as welcome as Stilton-flavoured toothpaste. Adamson’s penis fetish is another obstacle. He can’t seem to leave the male organ alone. And the nudity is ill-judged. A hapless middle-aged actor, whose body ought to be permanently concealed, at public expense if necessary, is twice made to exhibit himself to the crowd and to milk his sorry appearance for laughs. Very unfair on him. And he’s been ordered to present the groundlings with a sight that only colon specialists and prison rapists encounter in their everyday lives. To say that kids should be kept away from this lewd, sweary embarrassment is probably to miss the point that kids are the only ones equipped to grasp it at the author’s level.

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