Bad Jazz

Robert Farquhar
An ATC and The Drum Theatre, Plymouth, production
The Drum, Plymouth, and touring

Publicity photo

Robert Farquhar's new play is a brilliant, ninety minute satirical stab at modern theatre which succeeds in being self-referential without ever being self-conscious. Together, Farquhar and Director Gordon Anderson have created the impossible: theatrical caricatures with naturalistic credibility.

Though the play takes a few scenes to warm up, Leah Muller as Natasha gives as strong a performance here, as in pool (no water), on stage at The Drum last year. Her flakey, introspective gullibility leads her to accept the word of a self-obsessed 'guru' director, Gavin, (Louis Hilyer), no matter what he encourages her to do. That great indulgence of the 'Method', to immerse yourself in the world of your character, is here taken to the point of excess by Natasha, encouraged by Gavin. Muller brings a stark naturalism to the role, along with a degree of naivety and a touch of self-obsession that make her performance as compulsive as it is comic.

Hilyer's Gavin is everything that a director shouldn't be, and is all the better a performance for it. He is a hopeless communicator: he doesn't listen; he rarely ever makes a direct response, particularly not to a direct question, and he makes an art form of blocking every conversation he takes part in. Anderson works the impact of this upon the other characters ingeniously: during the rehearsal scenes, Hilyer sits with his back to the audience, so that we watch the struggle the others have to connect with him, (and more especially their desperate attempts to impress him), played out in their facial expressions and body language.

Neil Stuke is very funny as Danny, trying hard to be seen to 'get' the creative clap-trap Gavin is spouting, but driven more by his desire to keep working than by anything deeper. His monologue, as he confesses to Gavin that he has been having an affair with Natasha at the same time as proposing to his ex-girlfriend, is a highlight of the show: a cracking piece of writing and a great performance from Stuke conspiring to have the audience helpless with laughter.

The erect penis becomes something of a talisman in this story, but it is very cleverly done. Farquhar crafts his story well: the false phallus not only makes for some unashamed moments of pure farce, but simultaneously manages to become a vehicle with which he challenges modern theatre. The audience, the establishment, and the professionals who make it their dream are here all made to question how far they are prepared to go in the name of making their mark. Alan Tripney's Ewan, the LloydWebber singing rent boy, is another strong and naturalistic performance. In all this, and in the dead dogs, blood and vomit of the mad final scene, the whole is reminiscent of Joe Orton.

"I didn't think that when I read the stage direction, 'she performs oral sex', that meant for real on stage, in front of a paying audience."

"Bad Jazz" runs at The Drum until March 10th, then tours to Edinburgh Traverse, Northern Stage, Newcastle, and the Unity Theatre, Liverpool.

Reviewer: Allison Vale

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