As I was leaving the half-empty Lyttelton auditorium last night an elderly lady in the row in front, with an accent that sounded as though it had got lost en route to the Abbey, declared loudly to her companion something to the effect that there had been some serious miscasting and the girl couldn't do the American accent. This would be an easy explanation for things not altogether working in this show (indeed pretty seriously not working in the first half) but it just isn't sufficient.
The first problem is the play itself which suffers from the Wilde syndrome. Odets clearly liked his one-liners. The trouble is that most of them sound rather forced and their style has a tendency to reduce the utterer to a caricature. In addition this is a very wordy play – there is simply an awful lot of text between the one-liners for perfomers to grapple with. For much of the first half the ensemble shows a tendency to collapse under the weight of the beast – the one-liners don't garner much in the way of laughter, the performers fail to bring to life the human beings delivering these lines. But, as I said at the beginning, I think it is too simple to blame the performers. And this is because, against the run of form of the first half, in the second things begin to happen.
This is centrally a consequence of Joseph Millson's performance as the hen-pecked Ben Stark. His disintegration becomes convincingly real. His despair as Jessica Raine (Cleo Singer) goes out to dinner with another man is palpable. Emotions break beyond the text convincingly. It was this performance that began to give me a clue to what has gone wrong elsewhere. Each of these performers needs to get inside their characters that bit more, get past the text to who these people are under all their words. In the third act, Millson refers to the fact that he is shortly going to be forty. It suddenly struck me that this statement could inform the whole story of the character – this passage of time, this loss of opportunity is what is nagging him – unconsciously in the first scene with his wife, overwhelmingly as the loss of Raine looms ever larger. This doesn't necessarily need to be the central factor, but each of these performers needs to find more definition – and the material to make those definitions clearer is there within the layers of text. My sense of this play is that it is about putting up a flood of words as a mask (in the same way that Cleo Singer compulsively invents herself), while beneath these lurk fearful realities.
Some of the performers have further to go than others. Nicholas Woodeson (Mr Prince, Stark's father in law) has probably the wordiest part of all, but even his guard comes down in Act Three through his desperate desire to possess Raine. The difference between his state of disintegration and Stark's is only one of degree, and his resumption of his mask at his exit struck me in textual terms as being pretty hollow – but Woodeson's performance doesn't yet have the range to bring this off. Keeley Hawes (Belle Stark) needs to put in the most work of all, though she has probably the least sympathetic character on stage – again I don't think there's enough desperation and depth there yet, and it is particularly important because her opening encounter with Millson sets so much of the tone and it just isn't working at present. Raine, as dental secretary Singer, has a beguiling smile, a seductive costume, and I believed in the connection between her and Millson but, like everybody else in the cast, the performance is not yet a whole one.
I also don't think that the performers have been helped by the direction or the set. The last show of Angus Jackson's I saw was Funny Girl at Chichester. That was excellent, but here I just didn't feel that Jackson had got his head round this play. I had a sneaking suspicion that he had seen one liners in it, and when he got into trouble with them like everybody else involved, and indeed the audience, he retreated into a few stage effects (the pointless corridor on which other critics have commented and the beautiful, but unnecessary rain). One doesn't have a sense here of a director who has been able to really help his performers to get inside this play, or had real clarity about what he wanted to do with it.
Sales are evidently poor – I took with me a note of an Evening Standard offer of best seats for £25 (normally £45) and then, while buying my London Road programme in the Bookshop, noticed a pile of fliers offering me best seats for £20 – an offer which continues for the next 12 days or so – quote “Spring Offer” I think on line or at the box office – though you may have to be firm as the assistant behind the counter at first seemed to know nothing about it. Despite this, the Lyttelton was depressingly and unfairly empty – which must be a further burden to performers struggling with this unwieldy play – which is probably, among other things, not ideally suited to the space. If you want a feast of witty repartee this is not the play for you, but despite the various infelicities and short-comings I have discussed there is emotional punch in this play (and I suspect there will be more as performances get more secure and hopefully deepen). Especially with the current offer, it is well worth seeing.