Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Terrence McNally
Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Richard Blackwood and Ruth Everett Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Ruther Everett Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Richard Blackwood Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Rom Com? Deconstructed Rom Com? Critique of Rom Coms?

Two single people, Frankie and Johnny, spend the night together. They’re not young, they’re in their forties. It takes them a while to admit this, but eventually they do. They’re not high-flying in any sense; he’s a short order cook and she’s a waitress in the same restaurant. They’ve both had less than satisfactory relationships in the past and neither wants to risk inflaming old scars.

They’d gone on a date and ended up in bed in Frankie’s rather basic New York City apartment. Can this relationship go anywhere? We are certainly not in Mills and Boon country!

But it is an intimate piece. After all, it begins with the couple in bed and continues throughout with them—not naked; the relationship has not really developed enough for them to be comfortable with that, although there is a moment when Johnny asks (and is allowed) to look at her pussy—in a state of déshabille.

But the intimacy is not just physical; it is emotional too. Just as one slight intimate physical moment can lead to another—and clearly did before the play began—so one emotional intimacy stimulates another. And that is what this play is about.

All of which makes it seem almost perverse to put a play of this intimacy on the large, open Stage 1 at Northern Stage. Director Mark Calvert solves that problem by creating quite a narrow traverse stage, so that half of the audience are sitting (in raked seating) on what is normally the stage and a bit of its backstage area. This creates an intimate space which is enhanced by the fact that two large net curtains cover the stage on each audience side of the traverse so that we only see shadowy shapes which we presume to be furniture as we walk in.

No spoilers here so I will jump to a few minutes into the play when the curtains open—there! Does that stimulate you to want to see what happens?—and we watch the post-coital couple trying to establish a relationship. He’s keen but she’s very circumspect. She’s been hurt before. So has he but he’s much more optimistic.

There are moments of real romance (in the traditional sense), as when they look at the moon shining through the window (standing in the clair de lune, the moonlight) while listening to the radio which is playing Debussey’s Clair de Lune, but these are but moments, for the play does not fit the traditional Rom Com pattern—from The Philadelphia Story though When Harry Met Sally… to Legally Blonde—which essentially asks “Will they? Won’t they?” These have, and now the question is “Can they make a long-term go of it or is this just another one-night stand?”

It’s a two-hander and thus so much rests on the shoulders of the two actors, Ruth Everett as Frankie and Richard Blackwood as Johnny. Everett perfectly captures Frankie’s uncertainty, almost resistance to the idea that love and happiness could be possible. Her body language says it all. Blackwood’s Johnny, on the other hand, is almost too sure, too confident, as if he is trying to convince himself, and one senses that he is almost pushing too hard. It’s a fascinating situation.

Calvert has chosen to set the play in its time—it’s 31 years old, written in 1987—with references to TV shows of the time and to the domestic equipment on show, from phone to TV and from VCR to fridge. He is right to do so, I think. To update it to the 21st century would be to, in a sense, deny its universality.

As a final aside, isn’t it odd that when we think of Rom Coms, we think of novels of the Mills and Boon ilk or, nowadays, of film—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example, or Pretty in Pink—rather than plays?

So, Rom Com? Deconstructed Rom Com? Critique of Rom Coms? How about Post-Rom Com? Answers on a postcard, please…

Reviewer: Peter Lathan