Writer: Stephen Clark
Director: Christopher Renshaw
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We live in a society that fetishes death; our fear of its swift inevitability has led us to create elaborate rituals for recently departed loved-ones, we preserve every aspect of our history in glass cases and are endlessly fascinated by the deaths of movie stars who died decades ago. And while death itself remains ultimately unknowable, the act of killing creates an intimate and unshakeable bond with the victim, which the conscience of many a Shakespeare villain can confirm.
Stephen Clark’s new two-character play Le Grand Mort, premiering at the Trafalgar Studios considers our obsession with and the intricate links between death, power, killing and sex, as two complete strangers trade anecdotes one night over dinner. Having met in a pub earlier that day, the shy and repressed Michael invites Tim to his home for dinner, but neither of them is quite sure what’s going to be on the table.
Le Grand Mort is a teasing battle of wits between two completely opposite men, dancing around their attraction to one another and a potentially stronger desire to harm. Written especially for Julian Clary, Clark’s posthumous play has touches of Osborne, Hitchcock and even Pinter in the loaded and increasingly dangerous exchanges between the characters, but is also riddled with Carry-On innuendo and wry asides that prevent this 85-minute play from taking itself overly seriously.
There’s plenty of crude and frank discussions of sexual acts and anatomy, with a slight obsession with necrophilia that may cause more offence than the implied violence, and, while some of that sets out to deliberately shock, Clark’s play excels in the slow unravelling of character who first debate, then finally offer intimacy.
As Michael, Julian Clary has plenty of repressed concern about the young man he’s invited into his home, afraid of the emotion Tim’s presence creates and unable to escape an abusive past. Clary opens the play alone on stage, sharing an eclectic array of stories about death and defilement with the audience, while anxiously waiting for his gentleman caller.
But Clary also seemed nervous, used to his public persona, and not entirely able to let the darker aspects of his character take hold. Like Michael, Clary is holding back, retaining a guard between him and the audience particularly in the more intense and aggressive moments that undercut the intended ambiguity in the character.
By contrast, James Nelson-Joyce pitches his performance just right, creating an unsettling presence as Tim. His first appearance is confident, territorial and full of certainty with an uncomfortable edge that keeps the audience guessing about his intentions. He moves easily between banter and threat, but also gets a chance to reveal a deeper layer to the character which Nelson-Joyce delivers with feeling, holding the small Studio 2 space in thrall.
Director Christopher Renshaw keeps the action moving fairly swiftly and convincingly manages the rapid transition between scenes in the kitchen and pub, using the tiny stage space to ensure sight lines are rarely obscured, and utilising Justin Nardella’s fully functioning stainless steel kitchen that does the duel job of being an appropriate place for Michael’s Notting Hill world, while also have something of the mortuary about it.
Attempting some Hitchcock tension, Ed Lewis’ unfortunate soundscape is overly intrusive, emitting a barrage of eerie sounds at moments of high tension and constantly telling you how to feel, rather than letting the actors and the text create it for themselves. Le Grand Mort doesn’t need it, and Clark’s play offers swift and interesting changes of tone that keep the audience engaged. It’s an elaborate game of cat and mouse, without quite knowing who’s who and if either of them will make it to dessert.
Runs until 28 October 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander