La Chunga

Mario Vargas Llosa
Second Skin Theatre
Phoenix Artist Club

La Chunga

Though written in 1986 and translated not long after, this is the first British professional production of the Peruvian Nobel laureate’s play (though staged by Oxford in 2005). First seen last autumn in Stoke Newington when it gained critical acclaim, it is now restaged in the West End at this theatre world bar in Charing Cross Road. It is an appropriate setting, though not without its drawbacks. It takes place back in 1945 in a low-life bar in Piura in northwest Peru, which claims to be the oldest Spanish city in South America but La Chunga, named after its proprietor, could be a similar dive from Marseilles to Maracaibo or London’s post-war Soho. Its characters may be Peruvian but you can find their like in cities all over.

The habitués of the bar we meet think Chunga a cold, asexual creature for she never responds to their sexual come-ons, they suspect she must be a lesbian. Victoria Grove plays her with calm assurance, a slow gait and swinging arms, a deep voice, impassive to what they say about her, provided they don’t insult her to her face. She says she doesn’t care provided they don’t start fights and she gets her money.

What does go on behind that cool façade? The group of men who gather to play dice and drink remember a night when, after a heavy loss and needing to raise cash to stay in the game, Josefino, who thinks himself the big-balled leader of the gang, “loaned” his new girlfriend Meche to her for the night for 50 Sols. They haven’t seen Meche since. What, they wonder, really happened? We go back to that night to find out and explore each of the men‘s fantasies as to what might have occurred.

Patrick W Doherty’s braggadocio Josefino, confident the girl is so in love with him she’ll do anything he asks, intends to pimp her and get Chunga to turn her bar into a brothel. The other men each have their private fantasy. Corin Rhys Jones’s easily-roused Liturna gets off on the idea of two women making love to each other. The production goes some way to giving the audience that kind of thrill, for Chunga is clearly attracted to Meche, but Nika Khitrova is slight of figure and doesn’t play her as the busty blonde of pornographic pin-ups. It seems to be her naïve innocence that appeals to Chunga who wants to save her from the hands of men like Josefino.

Tyler Combes’s guitar-playing José, not really the womaniser he pretends to be when with his macho friends, has fallen in love with her and dreams of finding her compliant, while El Mon, the under-dog in this group whom Marco Aponte plays with a coarser streak, is riddled with guilt about a boyhood incident with a little girl and has fantasies of sexual chastisement.

It is a fascinating glimpse into male sexuality, with references to fellatio and male rape for those that lose a game that may not entirely be in jest for this is male bonding that is fundamentally oppositional, in contrast to the concern shown by Chunga.

It is performed with great intensity by all the cast, riveting the concentration of the audience. It needs to for, though the ambience may fit the subject, what at first might seem an accurate effects track is actually the sound of people in the outer part of the bar and in quieter scenes made the actors often difficult to follow. I saw a preview, the first performance at this venue and the actors will now be aware that they have to increase volume and projection to counter this. Nevertheless, since there is no reference to other customers and the men at the table playing dice behave as though they are the only people there, any real authenticity is dubious for during those imagined scenes that take place privately the bar would presumably have been closed since Chunga has no staff to run it.

Those are problems a director needs to address if choosing such a venue, if only by treating the actual audience as other customers. If director Andy McQuade failed to anticipate them, he has otherwise done an excellent job in drawing fine performances from his actors. He keeps them almost all on stage throughout, freezing their men in action at their table during the scenes that take place without them. It is simply but atmospherically mounded for this venue by designers Mike Lees and Richard Sleeman, carefully lit by Anna Sbokou and dressed by Vasiliki Syrma.

McQuade makes skilful use of music to underscore the mood but surprisingly the group anthem that the men indulge in on meeting and parting seemed a little unnatural; perhaps it doesn’t scan quite like a song or perhaps it was because, despite one of them carrying a guitar, they never otherwise sing together. If they have developed their own theme tune then it seems likely that they would.

Mario Vargas Llosa was present with friends at the first preview. He seems a very relaxed and modest person, despite his great international reputation and appeared delighted with the performance. Fortunately he was closer to the actors than I was and further from the intrusive background noise so will have been less affected by it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton