Warehouse Theatre, Croydon
When dealing with themes like sexual predation or mental illness on the stage, a certain amount of sensitivity is required to keep the portrayals dramatic rather than exploitative. When dealing with such themes in the context of comedy, an even more sensitive touch is necessary. In Relax, Robert Farrar attacks his subject matter with all the sensitivity of a tank battalion.
James Holmes plays Sandy, houseproud proprietor of a Weston-Super-Mare B&B. Lonely since the departure of his much younger "houseboy" and (it's heavily implied) lover, he's taken to date-raping his guests after plying them with Bailey's and Rusty Nails, then in the morning blaming it on his mentally unstable identical twin brother Jimmy. Or has he? An attempted plot twist in act two suggests even Farrar himself is undecided whether or not Jimmy is real.
Whichever it is, Jimmy's learning difficulties are treated as little more than a pretext for Holmes to caper about in his pyjamas doing a silly high-pitched voice. Scant attention is paid to the implications either way (that either Sandy is faking mental illness to get away with rape, or that sex is occurring in which neither party is lucid enough to consent); we're expected instead to treat it as a light-hearted comedy of errors.
In case no one buys that, Farrar has stuffed the script with gay innuendo, ranging from the merely cringeworthy (Fred, guest: "Your employer's a little bit volatile." Bijan, new houseboy: "Really? I'm a total bottom myself") to the seriously stretched (Sandy: "I'm houseproud, but I'm not anal" - delivered with an expectant pause for laughter despite being, not an innuendo, but simply an instance of a word sometimes associated with sex).
Most of the cast, Holmes included, ham up their characters as best they can; two, Tony Bluto and Nadia Kamil, appear distinctly uncomfortable in their assigned stereotypes (respectively a promiscuous, drug-abusing older gay man and another generically "mad" individual, possibly a paranoid schizophrenic - I'm no expert and, clearly, neither is Farrar). By stumbling their lines and shying away from fully embodying their roles, they sabotage the play in small ways, redeeming themselves slightly for their part in it.
Yes, it is important for us to be able to laugh at serious issues such as those tackled in Relax, but not like this: not by obscuring their seriousness behind the comedy label, and not by reinforcing pejorative stereotypes in order to ridicule those on whom they're based.
Until 4th April
Reviewer: Matt Boothman