Bar theatre productions are a really mixed bag in my experience; venue, choice of production and cast can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, and in the past I have come out feeling frustrated or disappointed as often as I have fulfilled and admiring.
Thankfully, in Savage in Limbo at The Camden Eye theatre, there was plenty to admire. Acting, set, script and direction all pulled together to deliver a slick, snappy, stylish and unexpectedly funny production.
Subtly set in the 1980s – no don’t worry, no neon legwarmers, merely a vintage feel to both set and dress and a quick mention of the Soviet Union – Savage In Limbo offers us a glimpse into the lives of five deadbeats trying either to hide from or to fix their lives in a seedy Bronx bar, with varying levels of success. And from the very beginning there we are, right there in the bar with them. As we file in, clutching our drinks, and sit down on the squashy, battered chesterfield sofa, the weary looking man behind the bar polishes his glasses and stares into space, the drunk with her head on the counter mutters irritably in her sleep. It is testament to the quality of both acting and direction that we stay with them, in that bar, throughout their journey that evening. This is not to say that we are subjected to any hokey audience interaction – far from it – but we are certainly interested observers rather than detached viewers.
First to arrive is feisty virgin Denise Savage, played magnificently by Grace Kennedy with snapping wit, precisely timed comic delivery and flashing eyes. She wants to make a change in her life, and soon. And the first thing to go, she decides, must be that millstone around her neck, her virginity.
She is quickly joined by a sobbing Linda Rotunda, an old school friend of Savage’s and now notorious local bike, distraught because her boyfriend has announced his intention of leaving her in order to date ugly girls. Linda is played convincingly by Gabriella Curtis, with much head tossing and hip wiggling. Enter the boyfriend, Tony Aronica, a coiffed, tight jeaned individual, who is clearly undergoing a monumental existential crisis. Robert Bellissimo makes this character much more likeable than he might otherwise have been – an endearing mixture of naivety and machismo, reminiscent at times of The Fonz. Oliver Hewett as the straight laced, straight faced barman, Murk, has arguably the most challenging role of all as he struggles to be noticed amid all the vibrant, noisy characters around him, but he manages the task with aplomb. It would be easy to dismiss his girlfriend April, the resident drunk, as just a comedy turn, but this would be a mistake. Yes the actress, Melissa Palleschi has exquisitely comic presence and delivery, but there are layers to her troubled personality, just as there are to her acting, and while the pathos of all these troubled characters is never laboured, never hammered home, we feel it nonetheless, underlying the laughter and highlighting the dark humour of the piece.
The scenario – it can’t really be called a story – and script by John Patrick Shanley is believable and gripping. Aside from a truly bizarre Santa Claus episode in the middle – you’ll see what I mean- every conversation, every monologue, rings true. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that no fairy godmother zooms into the bar to fix their lives with a flick of her magic wand. And nor would we want her to; this isn’t Hollywood, this is the Bronx. The direction of the play was superb, in that it didn’t feel directed at all. The movement, the interaction of the characters, everything felt natural and easy, which means of course that an awful lot of work went into it. This is the Planktonic Performance Group’s debut, and a first time outing as director for Michael Pratt, and the result was superb. In a very “talky”, frenetic play, he understood and exploited the value of silence and stillness, without it ever feeling artificial. Kennedy as Savage was particularly adept at that, wielding loaded pauses like weapons, while Curtis as Rotunda, not quite as comfortable, seemed to feel obliged to fill the gaps with lots of hair fluffing. Overall it felt as though each actor was giving his or her very best, and as a result we enjoyed and empathised with the disparate, flaky little group, and were sad to see them go at the end.
Maybe, being the same age as all of the characters – 32 – was making me overly sensitive to their plight, but I have to admit that, despite having laughed until my ribs hurt, I did actually leave the pub feeling ever so slightly sniffly.
Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone! What you must do is go to see this play. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have in a bar, I promise.
Review of Savage in Limbo by Genni Trickett
Friday 3rd August, 2012