Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Terence McNally
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Dervla Kirwan as Frankie Credit: Manuel Harlan
Neil Stuke as Johnny Credit: Manuel Harian
The bed Credit: Manuel Harian

The 1991 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino elaborated on the original play, introducing more characters and covering multiple venues. This production goes back to the original, more intimate concept and the whole of the action takes place as a two-hander in Frankie’s studio apartment on the rough side of New York City over the course of a single night.

Frankie is a waitress at a local diner, and Johnny (not long out of prison) is the short-order chef; we meet them in total darkness but there’s no question about what they’re up to. The orgasm is just coming to it’s climax and immediately put me in mind of the famous remark in When Harry met Sally.

The lights come up revealing the couple on the bed and I can’t think why the total nudity took me a little by surprise, but there’s no denying that Dervla Kirwan’s Frankie does have beautiful breasts and it was all very discreetly and naturally achieved—and more realistic than both emerging with their pants on.

This, so far as Frankie is concerned, was a one-night-stand—very pleasurable but now ‘on your way boy’ and the sooner he leaves the better. Johnny however is looking for a longer term relationship and finds every possible reason to convince that they are really kindred spirits at heart and belong to each other. Both have past histories of failed romances, neither is in the first flush of youth, and both are lonely. The whole two-hour play is simply the couple getting to know a little about each other and how the situation will resolve.

The acting is superb. Kirwan beginning as a self-sufficient, brittle woman content to observe life through her window gradually, very gradually, starts to show the vulnerability and sensitivity present under the tough exterior. Neil Stuke’s Johnny is more vocal and bounces about talking and wise-cracking non-stop as he tries to convince her that they would be good together, all making for some verbal sparring. There is plenty of laughter here, in fact occasionally too much and too loud from the audience almost drowning out the performers.

Libby Watson’s set has the bed almost filling the stage, which is very appropriate in the circumstances, and there is a fully-functional kitchen on a raised level behind. The bathroom is also visible but happily there was no need to prove its functionality.

A radio is beside the bed, tuned in to an all night music show, and by chance the presenter plays a tune for a mythical Frankie and Johnny, which turns out to be Debussey’s beautiful Clair de Lune which Johnny now refers to as “our tune”, especially appropriate as by now the moon is shining in on the scene.

I did enjoy the production, but it seems to me that, strangely, it’s the dialogue which rather lets it down and the most potent emotion is in the pauses, the silences between the arguing and shouting. Director Paulette Randall has timed these well and the show ends on a beautiful and quietly reflective note, listening to the music and leaving the audience wondering will they or won’t they. We’ll never know, but the signs look good.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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