Keith?: Or Moliere Rewired – The Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Patrick Marmion

Director: Oscar Pearce

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Patrick Marmion’s new comedy Keith? is all about chaos and the ease with which established structures can be upended. People like order, a way to give meaning to the terrifying randomness of the world, whether that’s through some form of religion to give life a pre-destined purpose, or the imposed human systems of democratic government or global wealth management in stock markets and trade. But all of these structures are actually incredibly fragile, the slightest disturbance can shake them to the core.

The embodiment of Dionysus, Keith has come to earth to cause some trouble. He plans to start small, upsetting the daily life of one family, Morgan a middle-aged millionaire who is convinced Keith is some kind of guru releasing him from the stress of his life, his ex-wife Veena a controversial feminist academic, and daughter Roxy who has become too quickly engaged to Mohammed for her mother’s liking. Determined to prove Keith is a fraud, Veena starts to meddle in everyone’s lives but who is really in control?

Marmion’s play showing at the Arcola Theatre is an updated Moliere farce transposed to modern Britain and distilled into just over 90-minutes including an interval. On the page, the play has a lightness that should make for a frothy and fun stage-version, yet something is amiss in Oscar Pearce’s production that makes rather heavy-weather of the play’s comic tone.

Presented in big exaggerated, almost operatic form, this production of Keith?tries too hard to make every moment funny; the jokes are laboured, everything happens in a rush at the start so the audience is bombarded with character traits, facts and off-the-cuff remarks about everything from Brexit to hay-fever, while several of the actors over-egg the performances to wring every last ounce of humour from their parts. As a result, the laughs fail to come consistently for at least three-quarters of the play in a silly but frantic mish-mash of scenes and ideas.

It is only in the last 15-minutes that the whole thing finally hits its stride with double-dealing revealed and everyone coming to their senses in a well-staged and farcical climax. It’s not at all clear that Marmion’s writing is entirely at fault and while issues affecting modern Britain land with a thud every so often – Twitter trolling, the age of offence, modern feminism and #MeToo – the approach Pearce has taken is so big all the time that the audience can barely process it or appreciate the Moliere frame from which Marmion has hung his story.

Keith? has an experienced cast led by a serene Joseph Millson as the titular character, assuming a South African accent to play the former gun-runner turned guru whose asides to the audience (with a Bristolian inflection) are fully of cheeky charm. The female characters are less well served as larger-than-life stereotypes; Sara Powell races through her early lines as Veena but has an awful lot of ‘blame it on the menopause’ jokes; Natalie Klamar is a shrewish Roxy pushing the comedy a bit too hard, while Lizzie Winkler has a strong stage presence, but with a very 90s visible G-string over her jeans and almost no plot of her own, Anna boils down to little more than a cliched slutty cleaner.

Moliere’s plays, along with other classic comedies, have lasted because they speak to the timeless idiocies of humanity, of their scrapes people get themselves into for love, money and power. There is enough in Marmion’s scenario and the unfolding dramas to make a potentially entertaining farce but a more subtle presentation of the text is needed to really do it justice. Keith may be Dionysus in disguise but it’s all chaos and not enough fun.

Runs until 9 March 2019 | Image: Idil Sukan

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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