Here’s a heartwarming tale from the London fringe. A company named Above the Stag was merrily plying its trade at a small pub attic in Victoria. Then in March 2012 a bulldozer squashed the pub flat. In its place rose a glittering steel tower full of geeks, screens, beeps and loot. Undeterred by demolition trucks and by dollar-gobbling speculators, Above the Stag began searching for a new arena. After a difficult year cadging empty spaces from nearby theatres, the company has now found a permanent home beneath a Vauxhall archway. Good news: London’s theatreland is expanding even when freeholders are literally whipping the land from under its feet.
Above the Stag’s new offering is The Gay Naked Play by David Bell, a Broadway satirist, whose autobiographical notes are full of self-abusing boasts. ‘In his spare time David Bell enjoys humiliating cats, doppelgänger porn and Patti LuPone’s hubris.’ The play’s title hints at a full-on nudity festival but there’s surprisingly little pec-baring or buttock-disclosure here. The theme, appropriately enough, is art versus profit. The setting is New York. Earnest, high-minded Dan is desperate to direct plays that challenge the audience. But the audience has other ideas. It wants to stay at home watching sport and munching pretzels. Dan’s chief sponsor, a steely Brit named Imelda, threatens to pull the rug unless Dan can attract big crowds. A successful impresario rides to the rescue but stubborn Dan refuses to compromise.
The show is witty, good fun, sweet-natured and a little creaky in parts. Alexander Hulme is impressively wooden as the lumpy Dan. Lucas Livesey finds a lot of nerdy laughs playing a gay man who doesn’t know he’s gay. The starriest turn of the night comes from Ellen Verenieks (Imelda). Verenieks, a Canadian who trained as a ballerina, has an amazing verbal dexterity, and her comic graces are absolutely assured. She mocks the icy poise and cut-glass accentation of posh English actresses with cruel and bracing accuracy.
Ciphers, at the Bush, is so hard to understand it could be the Mensa entry exam. Fancy the challenge? We’ll take it bit by bit. Justine is an English spy who also moonlights for the Russians. Her orders from MI5 are to tail Kareem, a bumptious Pakistani Londoner, who may or may not be al-Qa’eda’s stupidest hitman. We meet Justine’s sister, Kerry, who runs a gallery where the leading artist, Kai, is played by the same guy who plays Kareem, the al-Qa’eda halfwit. Kerry, by the way, is played by the same woman who plays Justine. (Not that they’re twins. They just look identical but they wear different earrings.) To desimplify things further, Justine’s boss at MI5, Sunita, is played by the actress who plays Kai’s girlfriend, Anoushka. So Sunita is Anoushka, Justine is Kerry, and Kerry is Karim. No wait. Kai is Kareem. And Kai is having an affair with Justine, who could be Kerry but she isn’t because she’s got the wrong earrings on.
One final strand completes the spaghetti pile-up. Justine and Kerry have a stooping, elderly father, named Peter, who prunes roses and spouts kindly-old-dad twaddle. Peter is played by the actor who doubles as Koplov, a gropey spymaster and part-time rapist at the Russian embassy. Got all that? Right. Early on something happens. Justine takes an overdose and dies. What a relief. One down. Seven to go. Rarely has the suicide of a pretty blonde been greeted with so much quiet jubilation by a crowd of yawning play-goers. But no, Justine isn’t dead. She’s on stage again. Those are her blinking ear-rings. And, as she reappears, the play travels back in time to ask whether her terminal drug-binge was an assassination. The chief suspects are Kai, Kareem, Sunita, Anoushka, Koplov and Peter. Actually, scrub Peter, he’s her dad. That leaves everyone else.
Watching this cheerless mind-boggler is like showing up at the wrong funeral. The room is full of impenetrable jabber about stuff that happened to a load of strangers months ago. And the decision to hire four thesps to play eight characters must point to some wider crisis in the acting trade. Is there a shortage of needy show-offs at Central Casting? Have all our top luvvies skedaddled to Hollywood in the hope of landing roles as whip-wielding plantation-owners in the upcoming spate of copycat slave films? Search me. Ciphers has the structure, and the range, of a midweek BBC brain-teaser transmitted to a million sofas where the nation’s office fodder slump and drool. It just needs a few extra TV platitudes: a punch-up at a posh restaurant, a shoot-out in an underground carpark, and a surprise cameo from John Hurt as a gay Marxist recruiting agent at the snootiest college in Cambridge. Bung that lot in and the Bafta is in the bag.
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