“The second act brings with it a level of energy and tension that you would not have guessed”
Finborough Theatre is currently playing host to the European premiere of Arthur Miller’s final play. Set in a hotel in Reno, Nevada, in 1960, we see the production team of a Hollywood movie in a state of turmoil over the indisposition of the troubled leading actress, Kitty, who is riddled with self-doubt and has turned to drugs to remedy her inner demons. As the team ponder over how best to deal with the situation, it becomes clear that the picture is in jeopardy and indeed may not be finished in time.
The play’s first act revolves around a series of debates about how to get Kitty fit for filming and save the picture. The ever-present issue of the objectification of women in the film industry is brought into play here, with cinematographer Terry (Patrick Bailey) making frequent, somewhat inappropriate, comments about her physical appearance, implying that this is what ultimately sells pictures. Kitty does not appear on stage which makes it all the more a case of her being treated as an object whose opinions aren’t considered. As noted by the play’s director Phil Willmott, “She is consistently treated as a problematic resource that needs to be brought into line, with no recognition that it is this which has driven her to new depths of drug dependency and despair”.
The second act brings with it a level of energy and tension that you would not have guessed would follow the arguably invariable nature of the first. When Kitty’s trusted acting coach Jerome Fassinger (Tony Wredden) is called in to try to get through to her, each character takes turns to visit her in her hotel room and, through a series of monologues, attempt to coax her into finishing filming.
Lighting (Rachel Sampley) and sound (Nicola Chang) are used exceptionally well during the second act. Throughout the delivery of the monologues, a high tempo, almost manic, jazz piece plays, conveying a sense of urgency. A dim spotlight frames the actors as their characters converse with Kitty. Both these design elements make for a tense, high-octane second act, where the desperation of the production team to get their star fit to perform is clear to see, even without the presence of an actress playing Kitty for them to address. The actors deliver their lines so well that it isn’t hard to imagine they are talking to the troubled star.
Full of fantastic performances from all actors, this play is a clear depiction of the harsh realities of a, on the surface, glamorous industry. It’s also not hard to draw parallels between the play’s content and playwright Arthur Miller’s own struggles with his wife of five years, the infamous Marilyn Monroe. Although we don’t see or hear an actress playing Kitty, empathy can definitely be felt for her thanks to the way she is spoken about and the pressure she must be under. In summary, Finishing the Picture is a thought-provoking, well-executed production of Arthur Miller’s swansong.
“Highly provocative, this left people arguing in the bar long past the show ended.”
I once read that when viewing theatre you should ask two questions – ‘why this play?’ and ‘why now?’, I don’t think I have ever seen a play on the London Fringe that gives such an immediate and affirmative answer to those questions, as Dolphins and Sharks.
Set in 2014, this is the story of 5 people grounded in a Harlem copy shop where racial, economic and social tensions flicker as brightly as the light from the broken down printer. We see them struggle to maintain their hope as pressures beyond their control mount and conspire to threaten what they value most, ultimately turning on each other as they clammer to stay afloat in a sinking world.
This is an invigorating production. What is extraordinary about this play is how much it achieves in its simplicity. James Anthony Tyler’s script doesn’t try to make grandiose statements about race and society, it settles for creating characters with warmth, humour and a level of humanity that is still only rarely afforded stage time for characters of non-white origin. In doing so, the swing it takes at modern America and Western values is far more ferocious than any political agenda can manage, encompassing questions of race, class, gender and economic corruption. These characters aren’t trying to change the world, they are just trying to survive in it; playing by rules they had no hand in making and fighting odds which are stacked against them. It’s effortlessly brutal and heart-breaking, offering no easy answers and issuing a direct challenge to its audience.
The cast is exceptional. Each character is vividly drawn and played with spirit and compassion. At the heart is Shyko Amos as Isabel, a woman who still finds the strength to be kind in a world that treats her with contempt. Amos’ performance is phenomenal. We laugh with Isabel, never at her, making the realisation of how badly she has been failed a punch in the gut that left the audience gasping. As Yusuf, the innocent who tries to keep faith that he can be his own man by doing the ‘right’ thing, Ammar Duffus is compelling. Shading each crack in Yusuf’s naivety and gently switching between charm, pride and vulnerability, keeping the audience on side as his desperation becomes more apparent. Scaling the corporate ladder, Rachel Handshaw’s Xiomara is torn between ambition, loyalty and expectation. Handshaw never lets the audience lose sight of her conflict, even as her friends do.
Hermeilio Miquel Aquino’s Danilo blasts onto the stage with a blitz of energy and charisma, which only becomes more energising as the character’s enthusiasm wanes. Finally Miquel Brown anchors the show as Miss Amenze, a woman standing up against the waste of potential she sees in the youth of her community. Lydia Parker’s direction is natural and invisible, giving the actors the full scope and freedom to do these characters justice. The set design is beautiful. The soundtrack beats are pounding. This is simply a quality production, with not a hair out of place.
I can’t recommend this play highly enough. Highly provocative, this left people arguing in the bar long past the show ended. Highlighting the issues of 2014, only serves to put a more glaring lens on the problems of today. How much have we accepted on blind faith? How much do we continue to accept? To survive amongst the sharks, dolphins need to swim together. But can the dolphins take on the sharks and re-write the rule book in order to thrive? Ultimately that is the gauntlet that this play throws down and it’s a question we all need to be asking.