Simon Mendes da Costa
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and touring
One of the things that crossed my mind watching Simon Mendes da Costa's second play, Losing Louis, at the Arts Theatre was how far the play felt like a thematic patchwork of the season's offerings. Losing Louis has Jewish family tensions (Two Thousand Years), an interwoven past-present time scheme (Improbable Fiction), fatherhood and parenthood as its major theme (Festen), and even a liberal sprinkling of wills and funerals, topped off by the unconvincing dispatch of an important character (The Shell Seekers).
da Costa's play is one concerned with beginnings and endings, and one which intertwines them fluidly scene by scene. So the play, set on the day of Louis' funeral in the present, begins with Louis actually trying to father a child in the past. Then his 6-year old son emerges from under the bed (past) who turns out to be Tony, played by David Horovitch and attending his father's funeral in the present, which, in the event, gets interrupted by a wedding party just as - in the past section - Louis' mistress Bella is marrying her offstage boyfriend to legitimise her carrying Louis' child.
You get the idea; and the plot, solidly constructed and studded with comic set-piece after comic set-piece, feels complete, and provides for a strong evening's entertainment; although one that never strays beyond its 'sitcom' tagline. And when, at the end, Tony's own origins have been revealed as contrary to his expectations, and by finding a birth certificate Sheila and Tony uncover the play's moral (that endings and beginnings are all relative [cf. the repeated Einstein mentions] to the perceiver) you can feel things teeter on the line of sitcom cliché. da Costa does have a tendency to hammer his point home a little hard at times, but, reservations aside, the play largely holds the interest - and certainly held the laughs on press night.
This is largely thanks to a strong pair of lead performances - many of the jokes coming through a fine performance from Alison Steadman (in Abigail's Party mode) as Sheila, who spends the play stepping over the line, and then keeping on walking. Steadman totally convinces as the blousy, stupid, yet ultimately sympathetic Sheila, and, by the end, you feel you know her inside out. Of the other performances, the chalky-voiced Rula Lenska, icy and implacable, sails through her scenes nailing the laughs, but (and the same charge could fairly be levelled at Steadman and more at David Calder's Reggie) indulges in some thoroughly unconvincing and overacted crying. In fact, it is only David Horovitch (fast becoming one of theatre's most versatile supporting actors) as grumpy Tony, who finds the grittier pathos as well as the comedy: he is one hundred percent believable in every tiny sip of his cheapo whisky.
Losing Louis isn't bad at all, but isn't of the same standard as the other new work - namely O Go My Man and Mammals- we've been lucky enough to see this season at the Arts. Perhaps we've been spoilt, but here it feels like the device is more tricksy than necessary, and, consequently Losing Louis doesn't linger long in the mind. An amusing, enjoyable, lightweight night out then, but without anything deeper buried underneath it.
Reviewer: Robert William