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A Cool Million or The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin

Nathanael West, adapted for the stage by Joss Bennathan
Vanguard Theatre
The Jack Studio Theatre

Matthew Ashcroft, James Macnaughton, Robert Durbin Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Matthew Ashcroft, James Macnaughton, Robert Durbin Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
A Cool Million or The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin

A Cool Million Or The Dismantling Of Lemuel Pitkin is the inaugural production of Vanguard Theatre.

This new theatre company starts with a bang with the première of Joss Bennathan's entertaining and mercilessly relevant adaptation of one of Nathanael West's few novels.

West's better-known work is his 1939 story The Day of the Locust thanks to the John Schlesinger movie and more recently Punchdrunk’s A Drowned Man which was inspired by the novel, but there are shared themes across the canon of West's work and, as this show proves, they are timeless.

Whilst A Cool Million is a savage assault on capitalism and the American dream, it is also a deadpan comic rags-to-rags parable which, unlike many of its genre, does not see its hero achieve wealth only to lose it, but sees Pitkin continuously strive and fail.

Presented as an extended vaudeville comedy sketch—the episodes are linked by contemporary songs such as "Nobody Wants You when You're Down and Out" and "Brother Can you Spare a Dime" sung a capella or accompanied by a banjo or ukulele—this show has a strange and alluring charm.

The three straw–hatted, blazer-clad, jovial Vaudevillians tell the story of an optimistic and impecunious young man who sets off during the Great Depression to make his fortune and save the family home.

With the blind faith of Candide, the hapless Lemuel Pitkin quickly becomes the target of every crook and swindler.

A satirical romp, along the way he is the victim of bankers, politicians, pick–pockets, Italian white slavers and Chinese pimps and the punch–bag of sadistic Irish–American cops.

Pitkin's misadventures are many and various and he surreally loses various body parts in his attempts to make a living. His snippets of luck are quickly reversed and his good deeds misconstrued.

From time to time, Pitkin's adversities by chance link up with those of childhood sweetheart Betty, whose life is similarly afflicted having been abused, raped and forced into prostitution, but he is a failure even in love.

In what seems to be his final ignominy, Pitkin is the stooge to two Vaudevillians whose cruelly hilarious finale is beating him until his prosthetics fall out and his toupee flies off. However, in a world where no opportunity to make a buck is lost, Pitkin is exploited even in death, hailed as a martyr to the cause of a failed politician.

For all the story's inhumanity, the physicality of the staging, the spiked comedy and Vaudevillian setting makes this an easy watch.

The talented trio—Matthew Ashcroft, Robert Durbin and James Macnaughton—are in the capable hands of The Jack's artistic director Kate Bannister, who draws out the visual comedy of the piece and balances the tragedy and humour to present something that is as thought–provoking as it is entertaining.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti