Writer: Ella Hickson
Director: Dominique Chapman
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
If the directors taking part in the Directors’ Festival at The Orange Tree are the future of theatre, then we can expect some exciting times ahead. In the hands of Dominique Chapman, Precious Little Talent, a fast, fast-talking comedy about transatlantic relations, shines as bright as New York’s Chrysler Building.
On a rooftop in the city that never sleeps, 19-year-old Sam meets, improbably, an English woman called Joey. Sam talks like a wisecracking film noir private investigator, narrating his inner thoughts to the audience. Joey, silent and mysterious, is his femme fatale, and together they explore Manhattan. But hold on, the scene quickly repeats itself and things are not quite as they seem.
This is the New York of American writer Paul Auster; unknowable, fragmentary and, of course, postmodern. We are never sure where we are, even when the play seems to fix itself to show how Sam and Joey bond looking after her sick father, holed up in an apartment ashamed of his illness.
As Sam, Matt Jessup is jaw-droppingly good; he easily conveys an American wide-eyed and wide-armed optimism, spouting epigrams from fortune cookies as if they were truths, believing that a motto on a car bumper could save a life one day. It’s hard not to get swept away with his enthusiasm especially as Joey (Rebecca Colllingwood) displays a hard-nosed British cynicism, which is at odds with the demeanour of her new friend. Completing the cast is pyjama-clad Simon Shepherd who’s confused, and addled with booze.
Together, under Dominique Chapman’s direction, they give electric performances that buzz like the lamps that stand in for the skyscrapers of New York. Eleanor Bull’s design gives us steam from the subways, the fire escapes of the hi-rises, and the chandeliers of Grand Central Station. While set on the eve of Obama’s presidency, this is The Big Apple of Bogart and Hepburn.
Both stereotyping the other’s nationality, Sam and Joey haven’t got a chance, but at least Sam has hope for a new America. Ella Hickson’s play is a timely choice by Chapman, coming when America seems to have lost this hope. Precious Little Talent has big ideas, but Chapman, an MA student from St Mary’s University on a course that allows her to work closely with the Orange Tree, is sure that these ideas are smoothly unpacked through the play’s comedy.
And it is very funny, the 75-minutes fly by, and it fits well with Katie Johnstone, another play at the Festival, as both explore the fatalism in our lives. Perhaps Sam, however irking his positivity is, has got it right after all. This slick examination of what it means to be British is surprisingly mature and sanguine. Unlike the title of this play, all involved, especially Jessup and Hickson, have talent by the bucketful.
Runs in rep until 21 July 2018 | Image: Robert Day