The Actor’s Nightmare – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Christopher Durang

Director: Lydia Parker

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

A life in the theatre is full of incident; the volume of actor memoirs, plays and films dedicated to the endless backstage drama can be salaciously entertaining, but it can also be frustratingly self-indulgent. Christopher Durang’s anthology of short plays and sketches, The Actor’s Nightmare is sadly the latter, reflecting the worst excesses of theatricality, erecting a barrier between the performers and the audience which leaves them out of the joke.

Premiering at the Park Theatre’s smaller space, Durang’s show includes six new plays some of which are appearing in the UK for the first time. The first Mrs Sorken is a kind of welcome monologue from the wife of a wealthy American patron speaking directly to the viewer about her philosophical musings on theatre and its role in helping people to grow. Played with a sorority sister wholesomeness by Kate Sumpter, it’s an interesting opener that brings-in other actors to play versions of Mrs Sorken who speak words along with her – a comment on the nature of arts-based charitable support in the US perhaps.

But what follows is a series of vaguely absurdist scenarios and pastiche homages to the great UK and American dramatists that are neither particularly original nor amusing enough to sustain the shows collective 105-minute running time. As a set of inter-related stories as they are presented here, it is unclear whether Durang wants to catalogue the actor’s experience or showcase his ability to reference and parody a range of theatre practitioners.

Many of these scenarios are essentially one joke taken to extremes and drawn-out for that bit too long – additionally frustrating because that same joke is then the basis for several other sketches as well. The fifth piece of the evening Desire, Desire, Desire begins as a nod to Tennessee Williams, imagining Blache and Stanley six years after the events of A Streetcar Named Desire waiting for the errant Stella to return. In Durant’s vision, their personalities are reduced to clichés, Layo-Christina Akinlude’s Blanche trying to seduce the census-taker and talking about her yearnings, while Adrian Richards yells “Stella” every few minutes. As other Williams’ characters appear in the scenario and a touch of David Mamet creeps in it’s not clear what point Durang is making.

Yet the same joke underlies the sixth piece that shares the show’s title in which an unprepared actor must understudy a series of roles not knowing which play he’s in or the lines. Stefan Menaul’s George appears in roles from Private Livesto Hamletto A Man for All Seasons and others it again becomes a series of unoriginal caricatures of clipped Noel Coward women, strange Beckett loners and Shakespearean flourishes that never quite capture the tone of these greater writers or build enough coherence to give this strange medley any real purpose.

Durang has some humorous moments but its more often baffling than genuinely funny, including a surprisingly spiteful and ill-conceived joke about Joan Collins in Woman Stand-Up, the only personal comment in the show. There are a lot of different styles in The Actor’s Nightmare which the performers efficiently switch between and they clearly have a lot of fun with the meta-referencing, but it’s not clear what response the production wants from the audience. Bewildering and excluding, perhaps this is the audience’s nightmare after all.

Runs Until: 10 August 2019 | Image: Ali Wright


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