Californian Lives

Martin Foreman
Arbery Productions
King's Head Theatre

John Vernon, Robin Holden and Carolyn Lyster in 'Californian Lives' Credit: Arbery Productions
John Vernon, Robin Holden and Carolyn Lyster in 'Californian Lives' Credit: Arbery Productions

The idea of presenting a series of contemporary dramatic monologues as an evening’s entertainment has long graced our stages. The 1991 stage première of Alan Bennett’s television series Talking Heads springs to mind—a ‘very satisfying evening of theatre’ according to one Broadway critic—as well as Eve Ensler’s exploration of the feminine experience through The Vagina Monologues in 1996.

Both the writing and the actor’s theatrical delivery of the narrative monologue is no easy task. We might expect exposition, clear character development, dramatic tension and, above all, a gripping story and there is an admirable attempt in Martin Foreman’s Californian Lives—an evening of three monologues about three Californian characters—currently playing at the King’s Head Theatre.

Derived from First and Fiftieth, a collection of short stories also by Foreman, Californian Lives tenderly concerns itself with perennial themes of nostalgia and reminiscence. The marketing material for the show questions ‘how well do you know those who are closest to you?’ and, notwithstanding each monologue’s consideration of the human capacity to deceive and betray in some form, it also becomes, in Emma King-Farlow’s gentle production, a piece about memory, love and the desperate desire to feel the open arms of home.

We encounter a self-assured salesman (Robin Holden) intent on meeting the woman of his dreams, a humble older man (John Vernon) who appreciates the quiet familiarity of Ben and Joe’s bar, and an amicable grandmother (Carolyn Lyster) who affectionately summons a past existence with her husband ‘when life was exhilarating’.

For the salesman in Los Feliz, his first date with Melanie ‘began to feel like home’; for the older man in Ben and Joe’s where ‘life was quiet and quiet was good’, the bar ‘had been, almost, our home’ whilst for the grandmother, home had been a haven in which she could enjoy the sunset (effectively mirrored in the subtle hues of lighting). The very essence of home is placed in jeopardy when each world is disturbed by an outsider. It is here that our narrators truly become of interest as they wrestle with their own memories deciding what to keep secret, and what to reveal.

While there are thematic links and touches that bind the plays—for example, each character takes comfort from sipping their own personal drink—each monologue appears to stand more as its own work rather than an imperative part of an inseparable trio. This is underlined in the production which has two intervals, and while this does mean the evening never truly achieves a sense of momentum, it ensures each piece is given the opportunity to pack its own punch.

Despite a couple of questionable accents, there are carefully considered performances throughout. Holden suppresses the insecurity of the salesman behind a macho jokey knowingness whilst Vernon’s older man is instinctively warm and engaging. Lyster imbues the grandmother with a heartfelt sensitivity though the indirect nature of the second-person narrative renders it the least effective of the trio.

King-Farlow directs with a light touch and places the focus on the performances. While the rustic production values service this fringe version well, there is room for a more effective use of design in physical production, light and sound. However, the thrust stage provides a level of intimacy that ensures a natural engagement with the stories that are told.

Reviewer: Greg Charles

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