Writer: Lanford Wilson
Director: James Kemp
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Theatre in large cities is considerably more varied than you ever imagine. Far from the West End or traditional fringe, productions have long taken place almost anywhere that can hold an audience. On any given night in London, you can go to pubs, warehouses, gardens and infinite numbers of tiny black rooms that transport you to other periods and cultures, that engage the audience at a much close level than the lofty proscenium stages of the mainstream. A great proponent of this alternative and intimate theatre experience was Caffe Cino in New York’s Greenwich Village which became an influential off-off-Broadway location.
Above the Arts, in the heart of theatre-land celebrates some of this work in a short season of repertory productions, talks and live music, which focus around several one-act plays by Lanford Wilson presented in this first double bill A Poster of the Cosmos written in the 1987 and The Great Nebula in Orion set in 1971. Although more than a decade apart, both pieces explore relationships of opposites and the sense of loneliness and loss pervading modern life.
A Poster of the Cosmos is a 20-minute monologue set in a police interview room, where protagonist Tom is being questioned. At the beginning the audience has no idea what he has done or indeed if he is the perpetrator, victim or witnessuntil Tom starts to talk about Johnny, their shared history, friendship and character quirks, before a closer relationship emerges and things take a darker turn.
Director Kemp assumes the role of Tom here and brings an interesting balance of masculinity and sensitivity to the performance. Wilson’s writing has a very natural rhythm which Kemp exploits well to draw the audience into the story and vividly create a sense of the characters and scenarios Tom describes. It feels simple and authentic, carefully juxtaposing Tom’s calm practicality and protectiveness with the unseen Johnny’s nervy and disconnected angst. The emotion builds well which Kemp carefully restrains to heighten the sympathy the audience feels for the manly Tom trying to keep his feelings in check.
As a counterpart to this, the duologue The Great Nebula in Orion reunites two former school friends who happen upon each other while shopping and Louise invites Carrie back to her flat for coffee. But it’s been some time since the women last met and their lives have gone in very different directions, leaving their interaction stilted and uncomfortable. But as the drinks flow, both open-up and find a shared comfort in the disconnection they feel with modern life.
Interestingly, this play verbalises the internal thoughts of both women which they address as asides to the audience, giving us greater insight into their changed perspectives on one another. Where this can often feel stagey and grand, both actresses slip effortless between addressing the viewer and each other that it adds considerably to their formal exchanges, and is a source of much of the comedy. Again this sense of opposites finding solace in one another comes across strongly as Rachel Barry gives fashion designer Louise a cool girl-about-town feel, while Lois Deeny is the more formal mother of two overwhelmed by New York.
Both actresses are very engaging and as the play progresses their polite small-talk naturally declines into past reminiscences and moments of melancholy as they feel the weight of their choices. At times they drift into private reveries of the past and it is clever direction by Kemp to have both women sit closer together at these moments as if it is induced by their reunion.
Arguably a 15-minute interval is somewhat unnecessary between shows, and it would be nice to see Above the Arts fully transformed with café tables instead of rows of chairs for a more authentic experience. But this celebration of Lanford Wilson and the influence of the Greenwich Village set is a welcome and fitting addition to the great variety of London theatre.
Runs until21 February 2016 | Image: Contributed