Faces in the Crowd

Leo Butler
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

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Leo Butler seems uncertain as to whether this two-hander is intended to be a (non-) sex comedy or an incisive kitchen sink drama picking apart the major social issues of the early days of the current century. Inevitably perhaps with such indecision the play falls between the two stools.

He is not helped by designers, William Fricker and Rae Smith. The pair have created a stylish but exceptionally compact Docklands apartment in a pit 6 or 8 feet beneath the audience who surround and look down on them. Unfortunately, though this looks fantastic, since director Claire Lizzimore chooses to set so much of the action against the outer walls, at any point in time a fair proportion of the audience will either have to strain to see what is going on or, worse, be unable to do so.

The flat is being rented by Dave, a nouveau-cultured Northerner played by Con O'Neill, who has lived in London for a decade working at an employment agency but ever hopeful that his writer's block will lift and allow him to become famous.

The opening scenes have an intriguingly taut sense of mystery as we try to establish his relationship with an attractive female visitor, Amanda Drew's Joanne. We quickly gather that she has made a rare visit to the big smoke from Sheffield and gradually eliminate old friend, sister and more distant relation before finally plumping for ex-wife. Even that is not quite correct, as the couple are still technically married.

Their meeting, which is not justified by the back story or the personalities of either, has been called in a late attempt to have a baby. Quite why a woman who was deserted 10 years back and left with massive debts or the man who disappeared should decide after all this time to procreate and more particularly with each other is never explained.

Their attempts to put things right veer between high comedy, semi-pornography, tedium and finally pathos at the end of an evening packed with far too many irrational mood swings injected to serve plot advancement rather than depth of characterisation.

While all of this is going on, the play also presents a series of speeches about a wide variety of social issues. Amongst others, these include the validity of aborting unwanted foetuses, the dangers of consumerism, the north-south divide, traditional values against new and the failure of the movement for women's equality. That is an awful lot to pack into an hour and three-quarters and inevitably, several of these topics do not get the airing that they deserve.

The two actors both give their all and hold the evening together with committed performances of high quality. Ultimately, the underlying structure does not really support the ideas, which is a pity because with a strong dramaturge or possibly a more forceful director there might well have been one or even two good plays waiting to emerge from this material.

Playing until 8 November

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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