“The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme”
The concept is simple, if bleak. Claire (Kathy Kiera Clarke) must feed her alcoholic sister Chrissy (Mairead McKinley) four cans of beer over the course of the morning, in order to stabilise her enough to get to a rehabilitation clinic. As the story develops, we also meet the ghost, or vision, of Chrissy’s teenage daughter, Heather (Carla Langley). These three women discuss, debate and disagree over their lives, their truths, and the future.
The idea is strong, and the performances are solid. McKinley is particularly powerful as the woman on the edge, ranting and raving from her sofa chair, and breaking down completely. We’re all familiar with Clarke’s comic chops, from her beloved role as Aunt Sarah in Derry Girls, but she proves more than able to tackle this darker material, navigating the complexity of Claire’s repression and perfectionism well.
The problem is with O’Hare’s script. There is no build, and little is held back. We learn within the first minute intimate details of how Chrissy’s alcoholism has been exacerbated by the death of her daughter. There is little more to learn. Claire and Heather both have long monologues, explaining their own secrets, but in Heather’s case it feels tangential. The monologues take us out of the claustrophobic room, where Claire is trapped with her drunk and volatile sister, and into an ether land, where the audience exists and is directly addressed. It’s a shame to reveal facts this way, as it loses that complex resentful intimacy between the sisters, which is by far the most interesting part of the play.
The designer, Niall McKeever, has lent into that claustrophobia, and the set is Chrissy’s chaotic mess of a sitting room. The stage itself, a glowing letterbox set far back into in the wall, makes the room feel as cramped as the situation these women are in.
The lighting, designed by Robbie Butler, begins mostly naturalistic, coming from lamps in the room. However, it shifts when Heather is on stage, nodding to the supernatural. As Chrissy’s situation brightens, the lighting design becomes more symbolic, something which the ending leans into.
The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme. Much of what’s discussed feels familiar, especially a disconnected diatribe about kindness on the internet. Ghostly Heather’s monologue is preachy – constantly talking about what could have been and what might be. Having her look back from beyond the grave clangs against the gritty realism of Chrissy’s situation. The musical motif of Coldplay’s Fix You not only adds to the generally dated feel, but also gives Chrissy’s very real struggle a saccharine edge.
There is however, a completely fantastic moment where Heather says that being dead is much like being alive, except for a low hum in your left ear. This is pure genius, and I wish there had been more of this fresh weirdness in the play, which could have freed it from familiarity.
The characters are dealt with empathetically, and there are shining moments within this piece, but overall, it is held back by a lack of subtlety and tonal variety.
“Sometimes it’s like a fine vintage wine, in other places, it’s dusty and antiquated”
Southwark Playhouse starts the new year Stateside as it transports us over to the Windy City. Cops, a new play by Tony Tortora, focuses on personal conflicts and professional unrests.
Chicago, 1957. A time and place where change and betterment is on the horizon in every aspect of society. But the murky underworld of Mafia crime and dirty police corruption is hard to erase. Stan (Roger Alborough), Rosey (Daniel Francis), Eulee (James Sobol Kelly), and Foxy (Jack Flammiger) work together in the Police Department. They may be of different ages, ethnicities and social standings, but their joint disgruntled attitudes towards the work and each other bonds them together. They’re on the hunt to bring in a gangster-come-star witness, before the Mob gets their hands on him. However, the operation soon becomes trickier as the cops get more entangled in the thickening plot, whilst their lives and relationships with each other begin to crumble.
There’s definite Arthur Miller-type undertones to Tony Tortora’s writing. Stan, for example, is a downtrodden everyman, with only his job to live for, much like Miller’s Wille Loman from his masterpiece Death of a Salesman. Yet, like Foxy who yawns during a long all-night stake out, it’s hard to not want to do the same at times. The stake out scenes in particular move at a dirge-like pace. The dialogue may be fast moving, but any physical, engaging action comes in dribs and drabs. The storyline of mob violence and corruption in the police department promises being full of grit and suspense but is rather lacklustre in final execution. Tortora is excellent at nailing the vernacular and true day-to-day movements of a 1950’s cop, but for theatrical purposes, this doesn’t translate into being engaging enough.
Where Tortora and director Andy Jordan do shine is the examination of interactions between the intergenerational, interracial work colleagues. The office offers a dissection of society at the time. The throwaway un-PC comments, and racial nicknames flung around by Stan, reminds you how much things have changed since 1957, but also how relevant social injustice still is today.
The cast give near-faultless performances as each and everyone one are believable and truthful in their delivery. From the scenes of bantering office talk, to introverted moments of opening up their hearts, they balance the fine line between the two with utmost precision.
The set (designed by Anthony Lamble), accurately captures the look of an American cop shop of the 1950’s. Maps, documents and photographic evidence plaster the walls. Archaic ash trays are dotted everywhere. The four detectives have their own desk. A charming, subtle touch from Lamble is that each workspace is arranged in the style of each characters personality. Stan’s is messy and full of paperwork, Rosey’s impeccably clean and organised. The back half of the stage is exposed brickwork and undecorated windows, making the transitions from office to stake-out in an abandoned warehouse run smoothly.
As contradictory as it sounds, this is a refreshingly traditional piece of new work. Cops examines masculinity in a classical style and structure that is fitting of the time period the play is set. Minus some in-jokes for the modern day audience, the play feels like it could have been written sixty years ago – for better and for worse. Sometimes it’s like a fine vintage wine, in other places, it’s dusty and antiquated. Authenticity is clearly the driving force, meaning captivating, gripping action is sadly put on the back burner.