Thank goodness for the Lady in Red. Amy Burke, playing the part of Mary Celeste, one of the faded film stars in City of Champions, adds an immediate boost to this dully prosaic production with her unexpected entrance, her enchanting presence and her ability to perform at a level that the rest of the cast, presumably, can only dream of. Burke is a class act: the rest range from the not-quite-average to the just-about-managing schools of dramatic art.
It’s probably not all their fault as they have to struggle with the most intensely verbose script I have ever come across. Writer Steve Brown is on his 21st (yes 21st) draft of this elongated exposure of Hollywood shenanigans and it’s been six years in development – with new “incidents” popping into his tortured thought process every few months. The incorporation of the impact of these new episodes (e.g., apparently, the death of Jimmy Saville) merely serves to diminish the initial concept so the original point is lost in a tide of complete over-exposition.
There are many ways to skin a cat. Here we have a writer who has just one way to skin a cat but insists on doing it many times over. Laurie Munro (film star Munro – really?) is a 38-year-old ex-child star who’s bankrupt, recovering from years of substance abuse, living on a couch in the shed of his confidant/Bro/partner-in-crime/soul-mate/maybe-lover? who has always looked out for him since they were fourteen. Bless. The presentation of Lonnie Drake, this extraordinary character-composite, is undertaken by Joe Southall sporting an expression-neutralising long, bushy, ginger beard which makes him look like an escapee from a Hipster convention. In the (very) long opening sequence between these two, amongst the touchy-pokey, playful-punchy, huggy-cuddly camaraderie of the uber-chummy kind, we piece together Laurie’s past with extra added unspeakable dark bits. So, that established we can now get on with the narrative, yes? No. Next up is Laurie’s agent/bully/mother-figure/actual Mum (oh yes, it’s Oedipus on speed) and we have a long re-hash of Laurie’s past (with, yes, those extra added unmentionable dark bits). Maggie Robson as Barbara Munro takes on here what must be the most superfluous character since the Bear in A Winter’s Tale.
Lonnie’s wife Amie (or Boo as Lonnie insists on calling her in his best Hipster vernacular) also has a go: same result: re-hash of Laurie’s past (plus extra added self-censored dark bits). Then classy Mary-Celeste sails into Laurie’s self-constructed Bermuda Triangle and we go over the same stuff again – albeit with much classier responses – and instead of being kept on the edge of our seats by the unmentionable, unspeakable, self-censored dark bits we’ve all long since worked out what they are and would really like to cut to the chase.
But no. Enter James Hudson Phillips (Ian McCurrach) Laurie’s first director and prime perpetrator of the dark bits. And guess what…? I don’t need to tell you.
The show, starting at 7.30 and finishing at 10.20 (with 15 minute break), is thus far too long – particularly in the stifling heat of London Theatre Workshop (perhaps try just using your many – underused – LEDs rather than the old-style heat-generating theatre lights. They would easily cope with the demands of this simple (uncredited) lighting design). Shave an hour off this and nothing would be lost. In fact, I have a couple of suggestions for writer/director Steve Brown: get someone else to direct it. And let’s have draft #22: in which you re-write the script as a one-acter, an hour long, and see if anything relevant is missing. You may be surprised. Start by cutting the totally irrelevant three-minute ’phone call that Barbara Munro makes to her unseen brother Murray about nothing in particular at the denouement of the play: a telling sequence in which we discover that even overwriting can be overwritten.
City Of Champions is about the very serious subject of paedophilia. Unfortunately, that theme is demoted, diminished and displaced in the swirl and clutter of hackneyed and apocryphal Hollywood slush that characterises
Brown’s long-winded narrative. A case, I think, of returning to London Theatre Workshop’s Theatre Lab for further experiment and, perhaps, trialling the tight scripting and self-disciplined approach that an EdFringe slot would require.
Review by Peter Yates
Set in 2010, in the city of Inglewood, Los Angeles, CITY OF CHAMPIONS focuses on two former nineteen-eighties child superstars, Lonnie Drake and Laurie Monro, who are living with the after effects of early stardom and abuse as teen stars.
Lonnie, a recovering alcoholic is married and still working in the industry. Laurie, although clean after numerous trips to rehab, is broke and unemployable. He is living in the ‘guest lodge’ in Lonnie’s backyard. Desperate for work and money, a job opportunity presents itself but it means working once again with the director who abused him during his teen career.
A reunion with someone from the past and an unwelcome visit from an old colleague act as the catalyst for Laurie to make a decision to take control of his situation and change everybody’s lives.
CITY OF CHAMPIONS
A new play by Steve Brown
Presented by London Theatre Workshop
17th July – 5th August 2017
Written and Directed by: Steve Brown
Cast: Joel Arnold, Amy Burke, Ian McCurrach, Maggie Robson, Joe Southall, Ellie Ward
Leadenhall Market, 88 Gracechurch Street, London ECV3 0DN (above the New Moon Pub).