6 Actors in Search of a Director

Steven Berkoff
Charing Cross Theatre

Sarah Chamberlain as Debra, Philip Voss (Charles), Ruth Everet (Francis), Paul Trussel (lAlan) and Neil Stuke (Brian) Credit: Marilyn Kingwill
Andree Bernard as Eve and Ruth Everett as Francis Credit: Marilyn Kingwill
Andree Bernard as Eve, Ruth Everett (Francis), Paul Trussell (Alan), Neil Stuke (Brian) and Philip Voss (Charles) Credit: Marilyn Kingwill

Steven Berkoff's new comedy seems to follow on from Sartre's Huis Clos proposition that "Hell is other people" by suggesting it is especially true when they are other actors. He presents us with a group of bit-part actors on location for a film, holed up in a hotel lounge waiting hour upon hour to be called for filming. A voices-only prologue provides a taste of what will happen when (or rather if) they are: interminable takes all halted by the director calling "cut" as soon as started to give some criticism or instruction, the actors always saying "got that" and ploughing on.

One of the characters quotes Alfred Hitchcock calling actors "cattle" and on the one hand this is a stark study of the way that actors are treated as nobodies, but it is also a savage satire on actors' weaknesses and insecurities. This off-set scene which, quoting (and demonstrating) that old film actor's cliché "we act for free, we're paid for standing around", is both painful and hilarious. Berkoff is a cruel observer and what could be comic exaggeration may seem to anyone who knows the business all too accurate, for even the nicest in this ghastly group are ruthlessly exposed.

Neil Stuke is the particularly obnoxious Brian, a pushy, foul-mouthed egotist who has a slightly larger role and thinks he's much better than the others and lets them know it in a voice that rises to an angry whine. Philip Voss plays Charles, an easy-going older man desperately trying to make contact with his daughter on his mobile who becomes the butt of the youngsters' jokes about their technically-challenged elders while they rabbit on about their latest laptop or iPad. Paul Trussel makes Alan a voluble moaner, making noise in private but too afraid to stick his neck out in public. Ruth Everett's Francis can at least speak up for fresh coffee, while Andrée Bernard's Eve, who is well up on exotic locations, hasn't a clue who Macready was.

Set against this lot, Sarah Chamberlain's Debra seems a relative innocent. There is a cleverly directed parallel sequence where she speaks of the pleasure and transformation she experiences performing in the theatre, ignored by the others who get on with grabbing dinner, so that it turns into a piece of direct address to the audience, a direct demonstration of the difference between stage and screen at the same time as parodying the person unable to communicate with her colleagues who claims to connect with her audience.

However complaining and critical they are of others, all of this group end up as spineless sycophants by the time Berkoff chooses to bring his ninety minutes comedy to a close. Berkoff has never been one to pussy foot and here he seems to be displaying contempt for both exploiters and exploited but it is also just a touch tongue-in-cheek, for one character does seem just a little like a Berkoff self-caricature.

You can't help ending up like Puck declaring "what fools these mortals be" but it seems almost churlish to laugh at their predicament and pretensions. As director Berkoff drives things relentlessly, it needs a lighter touch to turn critique into comedy and most of these characters are such bad company, we don't want to spend time with them either.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton