Theatre company Room One Theatre have transformed the performing space Above the Arts (above the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street) into a Greenwich Village Café of the 1960s and ‘70s, inspired by a 1958 coffeehouse called Caffé Cino. In this intimate and cosy room, that contains a bar and a mixture of seating on sofas, around tables and in rows, they are performing a season of short plays by the US playwright Lanford Wilson (whose explosive Burn This, starring John Malkovich and Juliet Stevenson at the old Hampstead Theatre decades ago burnt an indelible memory into this reviewer’s consciousness).
The evening begins with A Poster of the Cosmos, featuring James Kemp – co-founder of Room One, who also directed both plays – as a thirty-something year old baker called Tom, delivering a monologue to an (unseen) police officer in a police station in Manhattan in the 1980s. What crime is he accused of? Why have they repeatedly told him he’s ‘not the kind of guy to do such a thing?’ And why does he then embark on a detailed biography of his friend Johnny, who twitched, even in his sleep, and could never hold down a job and had no business sense, with whom Tom had a three year relationship which ended when he died, in hospital, in his arms?
The ‘crime’, which I won’t reveal, is withheld until right at the end of this 30-minute play.
It is both slightly unlikely – Johnny died of AIDS, though the word is never mentioned – and a bit of a let-down. But while that doesn’t detract too much from the impact of this portrait of an ordinary man who’s lost the love of his life, the overall feeling is this is a play of its time and maybe it hasn’t quite survived the test of the intervening thirty-odd years.
Far more engaging, for this reviewer, is the slightly longer second play, The Great Nebula in Orion. Set in a Manhattan apartment in 1971 it features two old college friends, Louise and Cassie, now in their thirties, who’ve bumped into one another on the street and catch up on old times over several glasses of brandy. Their slightly forced effusiveness is hilariously underscored by asides to the audience; during which in one instance Cassie, married to a rich man and living in Boston with their ‘adorable’ children, muses that the shock of seeing your old friend looking, well, older, is only a shock because you realise you do too (a comment that’s only slightly undermined by the fact that Rachel Barry, playing Louise, looks not a day older than 25). As the brandy bottle empties and the girls reminisce about past lovers, or would-be lovers – the poet who described the ‘Great Nebula’ to Cassie on a California hillside, the girl who never dated boys, who Louise lost touch with – the dissatisfaction of their lives becomes more and more apparent. Louise is a successful fashion designer who’s won prizes and obviously done well for herself – what with an apartment overlooking Central Park – but never managed to win the appreciation, or love, of her mother, or to make a life with the girl who never dated boys. Cassie, who wants for nothing materially, never fulfilled her dream of changing the world or forming a relationship with a poet.
While there is nothing particularly new in the story of two seemingly successful people gradually revealing their dissatisfaction with their lives over a bottle of alcohol, the play is written with such insight and wit, and performed with such verve by Rachel Barry as a marginally hippy Louise, and Lois Deeny as a haut-coutured, staid Cassie, complete with ‘50s makeup, the time swings by and the end result is both hilarious and moving. A treat.
Review by Patsy Trench
GREENWICH VILLAGE ABOVE THE ARTS
Lanford Wilson double bills directed by James Kemp
Designed by Rachel Clare
Cast: Lois Deeny, Sophie Angelson, James Kemp, Natalie Webb, Samantha Dakin, Jackson Milner, and Rachel Barry
New creative arts company, Room One, founded in 2014 by Mahdi Yahya and James Kemp, presents its inaugural production,GREENWICH VILLAGE ABOVE THE ARTS, from 26 January to 21 February 2016. The month-long season of work aims to recreate the energy and origins of Off-Off Broadway in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and is also a celebration of one of America’s most prolific playwrights, Lanford Wilson, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly, and the hugely successful Broadway and West End hit Burn This.
Room One co-founder, and director/actor James Kemp – whose former students at Drama Centre include Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Gwendoline Christie and John Dagleish – directs four of Lanford Wilson’s short plays, which are all intimate portraits of isolation in New York City, of people trying to find their place within the vastness and unknowability of space.
Great Newport Street London WC2H 7JB
A Poster of the Cosmos and The Great Nebula in Orion