“two very good performances are somewhat undermined by an overly long script”
Jacob Marx Rice’s Chemistry is revived at the Finborough Theatre this month. Originally produced in New York in 2013, director Alex Howarth brings this modern story of star-crossed lovers across the pond to London.
Steph suffers from chronic depression. She’s very glib about the number of times she’s tried to kill herself. Jamie has always been an incredibly high achiever, working himself to the breaking point. When he finally does break, he’s diagnosed with a rare disorder called unipolar mania. Steph and Jamie meet in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. As their casual dating deepens into real love, Steph tries to throw on the brakes – how can they take care of each other when they struggle to take care of themselves?
Howarth’s set is unusual. A large metal rectangle, suspended waist-high in the air, frames the stage, significantly reducing the Finborough’s already small performance space. Presumably the intention is to manifest the confinement of an ill mind, as the two characters never leave this highly restricted area until the final scenes. Beneath the metal frame, tracing the same rectangle, is a mass of intertwined wires and lightbulbs, which suggests the complexity of the brain – its unfathomable tangles of synapses and neurons. Oddly, and perhaps unnecessarily, the performers use microphones for narration, and set them aside for dialogue.
Caoimhe Farren brings admirable genuineness to the depressive Steph. She’s in turn detached, intense, caustic, and vulnerable. James Mear is appropriately high-strung as the manic Jamie. They play their opposed psychologies off of each other well, and do an impressive job negotiating the tight space. However, two very good performances are somewhat undermined by an overly long script. At ninety minutes, Rice’s play is at least half an hour too long. Lengthy monologues, extraneous scenes, and repeated ideas all point to an urgent need for an editor. It’s a slow play, and the overstuffed script makes it feel slower. It’s a shame, because Rice has written some immensely interesting conversations about mental health, and succeeded in portraying depression with authenticity, insight, and unaffected empathy.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was huge the year Chemistry was first staged, and it’s clear the play absorbed whatever was in the air at the time. Rice’s script repeatedly drifts into teenage melodrama, which feels a bit maudlin now. It’s unfortunate that Howarth and lighting designer Rachel Sampley have chosen to push the show further into the saccharine rather than pull it back: warm lights glow in the dark while Sufjan Stephens plays as the fated lovers try to savour their time together.
Chemistry provides a fascinating window into two characters’ unique battles with mental health. Even now in 2019, six years after the play was written, mental illnesses are still so misunderstood. It’s a highly relevant, excellently performed piece that’s in need of cutting and trimming.
“fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about”
Though it might be said of many a time in history, the debate on power distribution seems particularly prevalent at this political moment, and the argument between generations seems louder than ever, with terms such as ‘generation snowflake’ being bandied about. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, as directed by Matthew Illife, is a timely discussion between young and old, majority and minority, and radical and moderate.
Zoe (Moronkę Akinola), a young black student, and her professor Janine (Janie Dee), a white woman of obvious privilege, are poring over a first draft of Zoe’s thesis. What begins as an interesting discussion between two enthusiasts morphs into a gritty debate on the innately imperialist structure of academia and history’s stress on the white experience. The argument becomes personal very quickly, as is made clear to us by a soundtrack (Kate Marlais) of a low thrum and a heartbeat, confirming that things have turned nasty. This is pretty much the only sound used throughout, appearing again halfway through the second act, and it seems a bit unnecessary and patronising.
That being said, tension rises so early in the play that it’s perhaps necessary to continuously raise the bar. Whilst Zoe clearly has cause to be frustrated with the system, Akinola plays her more like a petulant child for the first half. Stomping around her professor’s office, avoiding eye contact, it feels more like a fight between a mother and her teenage daughter than between an esteemed academic and a promising student. The argument’s peak is lost in her almost constant state of fury where it might have had more punch if she had deferred her outrage slightly.
Akinola is quite a force on stage, however, and whilst her character choices don’t necessarily serve the play, her commitment to the role is tremendous.
Dee’s American accent is a little shaky and it gets in the way of her delivery for the first twenty minutes or so, but regardless, it feels as though she might have ad-libbed half the play, so natural are her mannerisms and emotional turns.
With an audience on three sides and an office-desk setting (Rachel Stone), the staging is always going to be tricky. The solution, it seems, is to keep both performers moving at all times, circling each other like cage fighters, in order to avoid having someone’s back to the audience throughout. It feels unlikely in this particular scenario, but maybe that’s how professors’ office hours are in the US?
No matter how it’s staged, the text itself will always, I think, make for uncomfortable viewing, pitting idealism against pragmatism; negotiating for improvements versus demanding immediate change. It’s an interesting discussion, but I’m not convinced these were the characters to have it: Though she isn’t without nuance, Zoe seems a slightly unfair and unkind representation of a completely sound point of view where Janine, though certainly flawed, comes off as charming and reasonable. It’s not a fair fight.
There’s no doubt The Niceties brings certain necessary and urgent conversations to the table, and whilst it doesn’t quite strike an even tone, it is fretfully provocative and painfully relevant, and it gives us a whole lot to think about.