America, the land of opportunity where, with diligence and hard work, anyone can be whatever they want. Let’s face it, we have all heard of and occasionally wished for The American Dream but is that dream really all it’s cracked up to be? Now you can find out with Vanguard Theatre’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s Novel A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin currently being presented at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley.
Entering the auditorium, we were met by the sight of three striped blazer and straw hat wearing ‘Vaudevillians’ (Matthew Ashcroft, James Macnaughton and Robert Durbin) who, over the course of the next 90 minutes or so will recount the life story of one Lemuel Pitkin an all-American boy who sets off to raise the money needed to pay the mortgage on his family home before it forecloses. Pitkin, takes advice from the wonderfully named Shagpole Whipple, a former President of the United States who tells him to set off to the New York and make his fortune there. Following the former POTUS’ advice, Pitkin sets off, saving his childhood sweetheart Berry Prail from a vicious dog on the way. Unfortunately for our hero, the gap between the American Dream and reality is vast and Pitkin spends most of his time stumbling from one unfortunate situation to another, losing various pieces of his anatomy as he goes. However, Lemuel is not going to let anything stand in his way and this naive persistence, blind optimism combined with an incredibly large amount of gullibility ensures his life is never dull.
For some reason, I knew the name Lemuel Pitkin before seeing A Cool Million – no idea why but the name was in my subconscious somewhere. However that’s not really relevant as I had no idea what I was going to be seeing with this particular show. What I did see was an absolutely wonderful and entertaining story played out by three highly talented actors. When you look at the story itself, A Cool Million is actually pretty much of a tragedy up there with the Hamlets and Macbeths of the world but the combination of a great adaptation by Joss Bennathan and Kate Bannister’s superb direction ensure that the laughs never stop coming as we observe Lemuel’s frankly terrible life. Let’s be honest, any production that features a ukulele, swannee whistle and a kazoo, is definitely going to be fun. And fun it really was. Both my companion and I had smiles on our faces all the way through the show and beyond as we discussed it afterwards. Thinking back in the cold light of day, A Cool Million is actually quite a deep play which manages to cover some really serious issues without being at all downbeat – even the odd rape and death is quite amusing. A lot of that is due to the delivery by the wonderful cast who, and I’m still not sure how they did it, manage to play a huge number of roles, often flitting between them at breakneck speed, but at no time causing confusion to the audience. Speaking for myself, I always knew which character was which, even allowing for the fact that all three actors played Lemuel at certain points.
Overall, both my companion and I would say that the Brockley Jack has a real theatrical gem running in the shape of A Cool Million. Suitable for all ages, the play really is some of the most entertaining fun that you can have at the theatre and I would heartily recommend it to anyone as a brilliant way to forget that the clocks have gone back and winter draws on.
Review by Terry Eastham
A Cool Million is a brutally deadpan comedy and jaw-droppingly relevant and vicious satire on a society where greed is good, and everyone is out to make a quick buck.
In this world premiere, three vaudevillian performers create the epic story of Lemuel Pitkin, an impoverished yet eternally optimistic young man who sets out to make his fortune at the height of the Great Depression. What could possibly go wrong?
Big city grifters; fluttering heroines; carnival hustlers; corrupt cops, lawyers and politicians; gold diggers; sinister foreigners; and the rise of a Fascist state! 76 characters in 75 minutes! With songs!
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Tuesday 27th October to Saturday 14th November 2015 at 7.45pm