Superior Donuts – a very irritating success

Plus: The wonder of A Taste of Honey

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

Superior Donuts

Southwark Playhouse, until 8 March

A Taste of Honey

Lyttelton, in rep until 11 May

Tracy Letts, of the Chicago company Steppenwolf, has written one of the best plays of the past ten years. August: Osage County is an exhilarating, multilayered family drama whose sweep and power amazed everyone who saw it on stage. His 2008 play, Superior Donuts, has a smaller, cosier canvas. We’re on the north side of Chicago in a doughnut bar run by an ageing hippie named Arthur. Yes, doughnuts. In a world seized with dietary paranoia, this long-haired old dreamer is trying to peddle wheat-based, starch-ridden, gluten-crammed, sugar-encrusted spheres of death. That’s Arthur in shorthand, stodgy and moribund.

His donkeyish life is perked up by the arrival of Franco, a chatty young black dude, who needs a job and a publisher for his novel. But Franco is carrying some bad debts from his gambling days and he’s being hounded by a pair of very polite gangsters. All this detail takes over an hour to unfold, and the action is broken up with irrelevant bittersweet scenes involving gormless cops and a motor-mouthed Russian neighbour who wants to become a millionaire. His heavily accented monologues are supposed to be gauche, quirky and hilarious. And they nearly are.

The play’s stagecraft, borrowed from Chekhov, works very well. The studied languor, the loose ends left flapping, the general free-flowing untidiness of the piece are admirable. But flaws remain. Arthur keeps breaking the fourth wall to wallow in his woe-stricken back story as a draft-dodger who was forced into exile in Canada. In the second act there’s a bareknuckle fight between Arthur and one of the gangsters with the comedy Russian serving as umpire. That’s bananas. And it’s impossible to stage convincingly. And Franco’s novel, of which only one copy exists, suffers a predictable fate.

The show is a success but it belongs in the ‘very irritating’ category. It works, undoubtedly. I felt my heart-strings being jerked and tweaked with a delicious twang as it reached its conclusion. But goodness it’s a slog. And the take-home message — even a washed-up dope victim can find redemption through kindness — is unlikely to shatter the earth.

Six weeks? Two weeks? Ten days? The time taken by the 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney to write her first play, A Taste of Honey, has become the subject of a retrospective auction. She herself claimed to have completed the script in a fortnight when she sent it to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1958. But in her covering letter she also stated, incorrectly, that she had attended a theatre only once in her life. In fact, she’d seen enough drama to know that the stereotypical ‘gormless northerner’ was a distortion. She wanted to portray characters as they were, ‘alive and cynical’.

The play begins almost as a pastiche of urban squalor. Teenage Josephine and her sexpot mother Helen move into a Salford slum surrounded by a canal, a gasworks and a slaughterhouse. They rail and bicker at each other constantly. Helen is a self-centred, hard-drinking nympho who wants to marry a slimy young car salesman and leave the helpless Josephine to her own devices. The grinding misery is enlivened by cocky put-downs. When Josephine lights a cigarette, her mother comments, ‘You’ve enough bad habits without adding to your repertoire.’ Josephine catches the eye of a friendly black sailor, Jimmy, and they begin a coy affair. He offers to marry her and he convinces himself that his promise is genuine. She pretends to believe him but fears she’ll be abandoned soon enough. And she is. Delaney’s writing here is superb. She brings out the young lovers’ fragile romanticism and unwitting self-delusion in passages of dialogue that are entirely naturalistic and full of emotional truth.

Minus her sailor-boy, Josephine befriends a gay art student, Geoffrey, who wants to become a surrogate father to the child she is now expecting. Then Helen’s marriage collapses when she discovers that her smarmy salesman is a penniless, drunken bully. ‘He threw money around like a man with no arms.’ Now homeless, Helen sets about evicting Geoffrey from the house, which she does with caustic brutality. Behind all the cattiness and sarcasm, the emotional tenderness between mother and daughter comes across very forcefully. Lesley Sharp, in excellent trim, tries a little too hard to find the comedy in Helen, who is primarily a pathetic figure rather than a grotesque. Kate O’Flynn is geeky, awkward and triumphantly charismatic as Josephine. And Harry Hepple offers strong support as the indomitably dignified Geoffrey. Bijan Sheibani’s direction has just one false note. He ends each scene with a frenzied little dance that seems tiresome, artless and distracting. And he might run the show a little faster. The last half-hour was marred by discourteous coughing from the stalls. Shelagh Delaney never wrote another successful play. But this, her one hit, is a wonder.

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