Kurt and Sid
Trafalgar Studios 2
Roy Smiles's new play rides on a magic realist angle into Kurt Cobain's attic room on the night of his death. The barrel is in the man's mouth when he is rudely interrupted by the foul-mouthed living embodiment of Sid Vicious, another iconic rock and roll casualty and Cobain's idol. Is it a ghost, a fantastist or a con-man?
Smiles is not as interested in this question as he is in exploiting the setup that he has by hook or by crook created. With only a short preamble about the enigma of the current situation, the two figures get down to debating Kurt's life, and the looming prospect of his death.
Thank goodness that Smiles writes Sid as such an irreverent, witty, unimpressable breath of British scorn. He's searingly articulate too (unrealistically so, as he himself acknowledges) and constantly undercuts Kurt's more vague and doom-laden pronouncements. Most of the play is given to dissecting the minutiae of Kurt's depression which makes for an unsatisfying watch, as elements of the story are commonly known and so no surprise to us, while the details about which Smiles has speculated are unprovable and so lack the necessary narrative clout. The back-and-forth takes a couple of interesting turns, such as when Sid attacks Kurt for being prepared to leave his daughter fatherless; but "She'll be better off without me" is the most we get from Kurt on the subject. It's unconvincingly vague.
A lot more interesting is the two of them discussing the concept of the self-aware suicide. Kurt reels off previous musician suicides aged 27 - an extremely exclusive hall of fame he's eager to join. Sid points out he'll be the first suicidal rock star "who knows how boringly cliché-ed he's being". There's much talk about selling out, about the line between being authentic and being a sham; how much of the rock star lifestyle is purely appearance, a particular look ("heroin chic" as Kurt says) and thus a brand, mass-marketed to the public. Kurt knows all this, so there is a sense that his death is the one remaining authentic thing he can achieve. But Smiles does not go far enough with this. Nor does he take very far the suggestion Sid makes, that his appearance may be only as a figment of Kurt's imagination: Kurt's brain playing every trick it can to try and keep him from pulling the trigger. If Kurt has this subconscious life-wish, we need to be more convinced of the strength of his nihilism to be able to resist all Sid's arguments. As it is, he himself has allowed the possibility that his pessimism is partly a poser's habit. The deeper truth escapes us.
Danny Dyer's performance as Sid keeps the play going: a constant supply of electricity. His eyes glitter, he bends his back and crooks his arms for a range of ironic/skeptical rock-star postures. He nails the imaginary Sid's mix of cynicism, dry and vulgar humour, and empathy. But Shaun Evans as Kurt is jarringly cool and level. He never changes the tone of his deadpan delivery, calmly assessing of the facts as he sees them; his voice alters in volume but never in emotional timbre. Kurt speaks of himself as an essentially visceral creature, for whom words are useless, who in the end "can only fuck and sing". I longed for more of the physical presence of such a man: shaking, living in his sweat for days, wrung out by addiction, and desperate with the clear knowledge of the consequences his action will have. All this the script fills in for us, but Evans does not give us.
In many individual bursts, the writing is a treat. Sid gets all the best lines, and Dyer relishes them: "Thank god Jesus never went to prison; it'd give 'turn the other cheek' a whole new meaning."
But this is a play that flashes and burns out, rather than living beyond itself.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury