It’s a shame most people now associate Dennis Kelly with Matilda The Musical; it belies his versatility. He has returned to the Royal Court with a new play: a pitch-dark satire on greed, choice, and postmodern identity.
We can’t pretend we’re seeing anything new here, thematically: from Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood to Breaking Bad, these ideas have been well-trodden. Indeed, if Kelly’s play were entitled Citizen Kane Will Be Breaking Bad, you’d have a perfect idea of the play’s narrative: an upstanding citizen, thanks in part to fate, a troubled childhood, and past mistakes, takes a split-second decision to transform into a heartless businessman. He becomes immensely rich, and even attains the love of his life, at the cost of totally reinventing his past and filling his present and future with lies. Even the reinvention of one’s past is not a new theme (see Jacques Audiard‘s 1996 film Un héro très discret). For the last few years, millions of people have been watching a very similar narrative to that of Kelly’s play unfold on AMC and Netflix. Why do we need another anti-capitalist morality tale?
The answer, if you like visually inventive and formally innovative theatre, is at the Royal Court right now. It may have rehashed themes and a structure older than Aristotle, but formally it’s dazzling. We begin with an extended chorus: seven seated people, relaxed and facing the audience, detail the life of Gorge (pronounced ‘George’), from inception to mid-twenties. The chorus is a riot to listen to: the comic timing – of Joshua James and Kate O’Flynn in particular – is wonderful. But the chorus’ strength doesn’t lie in its naturalistic, concise biography of Gorge: it lies in its length. The chorus comes and goes, but is responsible for over a third of the play’s duration; it provides a pointed, biased running commentary rather than an impersonal intermittent one. The effect of this is to provoke interesting and often unexpected questions. At times, the chorus overstates itself, and spells out things that could easily be inferred; at other times, it borders on the preachy. But ultimately, its casually probing tone is appealing and compelling – qualities that need to be present in spades for the audience to be drawn in for 150 minutes.
Kelly’s dialogue is usually wholly believable, incorporating the awkward logorrhoea and loaded silences of Pinter, and the acerbic wit of Mamet and McDonagh (who is Kelly’s age to the year). He has his own sensibility, though, and his condensation and conveyance of ideas is deft indeed. It is the pairing of his script with the vivid, visionary direction of Vicky Featherstone – a Royal Court débutante – that lends the play such wallop. Featherstone’s pacing and deep understanding of the material; Tom Scutt’s stage design; and Philip Gladwell’s lighting make this play worth seeing, although some of the musical cues are a shade too heavy-handed.
What elevates the play from a three-star play to a four-star one is the acting. O’Flynn showcases a phenomenal talent as Mastromas’ love interest; she does ‘waspish’ and ‘stung’ equally convincingly, and inhabits Kelly’s dialogue wonderfully, although her naturalism occasionally descends into hyper-naturalism. Tom Brooke, as the eponymous anti-hero, is even better: solid acting in the first half gives way in the second half to the best stage acting I’ve seen for a long time. It is often the case with lengthy plays that the second half sags a little; here, it is electrifying, despite wearing its influences more clearly on its sleeve.
I recommend this play. Its only major drawback is the fact that it deals with well-worn themes, but this makes the production’s inventiveness all the more impressive. Powerful stuff.