WINNER’S CURSE at the Park Theatre
“Anderson’s regular convivial contributions raise the tone, giving the sense that we’re simply having a lovely chat with an old friend”
Clive Anderson is just a pleasure to be in the company of. Never mind if he’s any good at acting, because despite the fact he’s introduced as Nobel Prize-winning negotiator, Hugo Leitski, he’s really just being his charming, endearing self.
Via the premise of giving a talk on international negotiations, Anderson takes us back to his first peace negotiation alongside dab hand Anton Korsakov, the first man to truly teach him the art, or as they say, the dance of negotiating. The story plays out between two countries in a 24-hour cease-fire, with Anderson loitering just outside the limelight, pleasantly interrupting on occasion to give the audience various tips and tricks, which they’re to practice on their neighbour.
I’ve come alone, and thus have to thumb-war with a stranger, but presumably most of the audience is bartering and thumb-warring with their friend or partner, a gentle form of audience participation which I think most people would be comfortable enough with.
Seeing as the disputing countries are made up, director Jez Bond is free to present them as he pleases. Costumes and names would suggest these countries are somewhere in Eastern Europe, but most characters speak in received pronunciation, whilst Nichola McAuliffe and Barrie Rutter use various regional accents. This encourages a much-needed silliness in the plot, which would otherwise be a rather tense tale of bureaucracy and personal selfishness.
The details of the dispute are a bit muddled, but we’re given to understand that they’re not especially important. What’s important is not what’s on the table, but rather who’s sitting round it. That being the case, I wouldn’t mind if the first half were a bit shorter, the warring dialogue cut to the absolute bare necessities, because as it stands, a lot of the chat is wasted on nonsense politics that have no bearing on the plot.
The characters in Winner’s Curse are what we’re supposed to be focusing on and, indeed, what writers Daniel Taub and Dan Patterson have done best. Each bringing their own grievances and quirks to the discussion, and each appearing to represent the types of people that might very well be in such a meeting: the jaded diplomat, the wide-eyed idealist, the young militant, and the embittered traditionalist.
This is Arthur Conti’s professional stage debut, but you’d never know it. Playing the young Hugo Leitski, he embodies the well-meaning, charming, but ultimately privileged and naïve apprentice. Coming from the National Youth Theatre, I’ve no doubt this is his first step in following past alumni such as Daniel Day Lewis, Collin Firth and Matt Smith.
Winnie Arhin excels in moments of high tension, but she seems slightly miscast as Conti’s love interest; the chemistry isn’t there, and in those more informal moments away from the negotiations she seems uncomfortable rather than playful.
Taub and Patterson lean a little too heavily on glib or silly one-liners- McAuliffe’s dialogue, for example, is largely made up of nonsense antimetaboles such as “Better to shoot your load than load your shoot”, or “better to clap your deal, than deal with the clap”, which grows tired quite quickly.
That being said, Anderson’s regular convivial contributions raise the tone, giving the sense that we’re simply having a lovely chat with an old friend. This is the first time Park Theatre has set up in the round, and it works perfectly for this gentle atmosphere, giving Anderson the opportunity to move freely. The revolving stage has a similar effect, allowing everyone a little piece of the action.
Whatever faults there are in this production, casting Anderson as the host is a stroke of brilliance, because you want to take whatever he’s serving, and so it feels easy enough to shrug off any plot holes, or casting issues, and simply enjoy his company for the evening
Reviewed on 13th February 2023
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Alex Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: