Writer: Richard Bean
Director: Matt Aston
Set Designer: Ed Ullyart
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Richard Bean’s last play to be seen on Humberside was the rowdy and exuberantly comic The Hypocrite which helped Hull Truck celebrate the City of Culture. It is a great achievement for East Riding Theatre to be able to present his 2016 play, Kiss Me, which was in the West End only a few months ago, but it has to be said: rowdy and exuberant it most certainly is not!
Kiss Me is a strange play: it’s hardly surprising to find Bean himself using the word “intriguing” about it twice in the same sentence. Intriguing, ingenious, intimate, and, for the most part, more credible than the basic situation justifies.
The main feature of the plot defies probability while at the same time being founded on a known historical situation. The First World War killed millions of young men and comparatively much fewer women; in addition, many more men were disabled in one form or another. The Spanish flu pandemic carried off many of those returning from the fighting. The result of all this was millions of young women widowed or losing their fiancées or prospects of motherhood. Richard Bean parlays these desperately sad historical truths into speculation, based on “some single source journalism”, that a respected doctor might have employed a young man to visit women who were desperate to become pregnant, have sex as a purely business arrangement, then disappear from their lives.
So there is Stephanie in her cosily unpretentious rented room trying on different dresses before the arrival of “Dennis”, a man who has fathered 202 children and who sees this activity as his contribution to the war effort. He is plagued with guilt because, having been in the West Indies at the outbreak of war, he was unable to join up. Now he is taking the place of the boys who never returned, serving the god Eros in his struggle against the death-force of Thanatos, for too many years triumphant.
Even before we factor in the attitudes to unmarried mothers in the 1920s, this takes some believing and it says much for the sensitivity of much of the writing that the play holds the attention as the relationship between Stephanie and “Dennis” thaws towards love. However, with a thin plot even for a 75-minute play, Bean throws in plenty of digressions including, for instance, some surprisingly modern discussion of sexuality and, in among some good naturally-arising jokes, a tendency to labour a gag such as the “not my/his/her real name” routine.
Ed Ullyart’s set – claustrophobic, cluttered, classless – is perfectly judged, as is Matt Aston’s economical and understated direction. Edward Cole is excellent as “Dennis”. Early in the play he lays down the parameters within which he operates: no kissing on the lips, no private information, no return visit – all broken later, of course. He admits, however, that he is allowed to be “dry”. The dry deadpan humour remains as his real nature emerges. Stephanie’s humour, in Bettine Mackenzie’s nervy performance, is more desperately jokey. Bean’s version of a modern liberated 1920s woman – she drives a lorry, for Goodness’ sake! – does not wholly convince, but Mackenzie successfully draws the audience into the character’s existential crisis.
Runs until 28 October 2017 | Image: Gavin Prest Photography