The Ballad of Crazy Paola

Arne Sierens, translated by Stephen Greenhorn
Tabula Rasa Theatre
Arcola Theatre
(2008)

Publicity image

“If two dogs are stuck together, fucking each other, you throw a bucket of water. Someone had to separate us, we were killing each other, we were dead.” So advertises the Tabula Rasa Theatre’s latest Studio 2 offering at the Arcola Theatre, The Ballad of Crazy Paola. It is interesting to note that these lines, blazoned on posters with an image of a red-haired writhing rock-chick, are also the only memorable ones from the play.

Originally written by the Belgian punk-singer-turned-playwright Arne Sierens, and translated by Stephen Greenhorn, Crazy Paola traces the 1980s fallout from a woman’s wild affair with her drug-dazed drumming lover, Serge. We hear a lot about Serge and his exploits, his failures and dreams, and his eventual imprisonment. We hear a lot but do we ever actually care? This past has affected Paola, whose memory of wild sex on a street bollard brings tears to her eyes, although possibly not for the reasons you or I might imagine.

Now older and hopefully wiser, the divorced Paola has two sons, one who seems annoyingly intent on learning the drums himself. Paola’s son needs a private drum tutor. In answer to Paola’s advertisement, the somewhat nerdy Raymond arrives, leaving Paola to face the uncomfortable truth that fate has thrown the half-brother of her ex-punkster into her single-parent way.

What follows are a number of short, intense exchanges which map the surprisingly easy seduction of this vulnerable woman. The ghost of Serge, and Paola’s far-from-astonishing secrets, haunt the dialogue. This fifty-minute play attempts to explore a narrative of guilt and reprisal, of lust and betrayal, and of crass insensitivity. “Attempts” is, unfortunately, the operative word.

Holly Atkins as Paola and Anthony Shuster as Raymond make a commendable effort to inject life and reality into their two-dimensional characters. The intense immediacy of the tiny Arcola Studio 2 space adds to the televisual truth behind their performances. They are not served by an uncomfortably episodic script which falters hopelessly with its inconclusive and, for me, incomprehensible ending. It is like being left with a cliff-hanger, only to find it’s actually just a muddy ditch.

Lorna Ritchie’s set of two opposing ramps smothered in nylon shag-pile, which conceal shelf-upon-shelf crammed with the detritus of early teenagehood, evokes nothing more than a Belgian squat. Never seen but only heard, the offstage drumming of the young schoolboy is, however, excellently created by John Leonard’s sound design.

As director, Nadia Latif has a particularly uphill struggle to elevate this odd play into a satisfying theatrical experience. Indeed, it seems a sorry indictment of contemporary drama that this is the best Tabula Rasa could find to offer the few punters who spread themselves thinly on the Studio 2 seating. Which is a shame because, as I am sure you can tell, applause was forthcoming, if only for Atkins’s and Shuster’s convincing performances which bravely fought against the honky-tonk piano-playing which filtered down from the main Arcola stage above.

Running until 20th December

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby