Chicken

Mike Batistick
Hackney Empire Studio
(2008)

The cast

Illegal cockfighting still goes on in New York - at Washington Heights according to this script - and in this American play preparing a sick rooster for a fight is seen as a good way of making a few extra bucks - quite a few if it wins. They are needed to finance Floyd (George Georgiou) who for too long has been sleeping on the couch of soon-to-be parents Wendell (Pierre Mascolo) and Lina (Clara Onyemere) and let them have their Bronx flat to themselves. It is also, I imagine, intended as a metaphor for the infighting that goes on among these friends, who include Floyd's wife Rosalind (Melissa Collier), his former boss Geronimo (David Lee-Jones) and his father (Jonathan Coyne): that to reverts to beak and claw, mentally if not physically Or it may simply refer to the ongoing conflict for ordinary people trying to survive in the maelstrom of modern US life.

The play is being promoted as a 'devilish comedy' but there is not much to laugh at in this production, though it displays a wry understanding of the emotional dependences and mechanisms that drive relations. There is a massive amount of back-story that is only lightly sketched in, leaving much unexplained. What are the awful things Floyd's father did to him, why has he left his wife and gay son? Floyd protected Wendell from physical and sexual abuse when they met in the orphanage where Floyd had been dumped by his father. Is there a past relationship between Floyd and Lina? Where exactly does Geronimo fit in, did both friends work for him and at what? How come Rosalind is on good relations with her father-in-law? These ambiguities make the characters interesting but just as they are unclear, so is much of the story. It may be there in the script but Sam Neophytou's production has drawn excessively naturalistic playing from his actors. They make these very believable people but as they often share intimate exchanges with each other that frequently don't reach as far as the audience - at least not a few rows back. I know taking down the volume can increase audience concentration but turning it off completely is counter-productive! It is possible to act quietly intimate and still be heard.

Working with only furniture and the bare walls of the studio, exits and entrances are skillfully managed through existing doorways, though this gives the apartment a peculiar topography, and there is a fine theatrical moment when a private scuffle transforms into a cock fight. I thought a large greyhound symbol suspended at one side was using the long-distance bus network as a metaphor for escape but it is actually to indicate a location elsewhere: a dog-racing stadium where the men both meet Floyd's father, a man whose speech has been badly affected by a stroke who has a secret recipe for making a winning cockerel. Coyne cleverly makes him occasionally comprehensible but the confusion draws these scenes out excessively while deliberately leaving us in the dark about what may be key information. Chicken gets four stars for its character creation but needs to improve its communication with the audience.

Until 13th December 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton