“…sitting in a car was where I first remember understanding how drama worked. My mother and father certainly provided enough of that. And hidden in the spacious backseat of a late-model American sedan, I realised quickly how deep the chasm or intensely claustrophobic it was…inside your average family car. Cars, like most everything else, have been used as covert love nests, battlegrounds or places of refuge.” Neil La Bute: Introduction to Autobahn.
US playwright Neil La Bute’s Autobahn is a series of seven separate scenes, or vignettes, each portraying the relationship between two people sat in the front seat of a car. Four actors take on the 14 characters’ literal, and metaphorical journeys across America, with a series of twists and turns in each scene eventually opening up to a wider picture of their lives. As La Bute intimates in his introduction to the play: cruising down the autobahn, the characters have nowhere to escape from their problems, and eventually the truth comes out.
Now, for the first time, Autobahn has made a pitstop in London, at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington. The show is produced by Savio(u)r Theatre Company and directed by Tim Sullivan.
The four cast members: Sharon Maughan, Henry Everett, Tom Slatter, and Zoe Swenson-Graham, bring the complex stories and personalities of driver and passenger to life, exploring their ‘stops, starts and stalls’ across America’s highways. The actors seamlessly merge from one character to another, switching appearance and personalities with the flick of a switch.
The talents of the actors are the particular draw for this production. In the opener, Funny, Zoe Swenson-Graham plays a highly intelligent but attention-seeking and manipulative teenager driving back from a stint in drug rehab with her silent mother (Sharon Maughan). In the next vignette, Bench Seat, Swenson-Graham instantly transforms to play the paranoid, clingy and controlling girlfriend of a grad student (Tom Slatter). She is convinced her boyfriend has brought her to a local beauty spot to break up with her – he just wants to make out. But her continual need for approval drives him to consider ending it. That is, until she describes the onslaught of stalking and harassment which befell her ex… leaving her new boyfriend mute.
Swenson-Graham is particularly impressive: she is utterly convincing, delivering extensive monologues with depth and variety. Slatter is excellent as the supporting boyfriend, but really comes into his own in a later vignette: Long Division, in which he plays the fast-talking friend of a lad who has just been jilted by his girlfriend (Henry Everett). Driving down the highway, he convinces his friend it’s time to regain his dignity, and more importantly, his Nintendo 64.
The third vignette All Apologies is another one-sided conversation: an obnoxious husband rants at, then issues insincere apologies to, his long-suffering young wife. In terms of the story, it’s probably the weakest of the seven scenes, but Henry Everett plays a convincing asshole.
Henry Everett stays on stage for the next vignette, Merge, where his status rises to the middle-class husband of a philandering, uninterested and glamourous wife (Sharon Maughan). Driving her home from a convention, he questions her about her night at the hotel. She casually reveals details of an encounter with two, or maybe more, men, while simultaneously giving her husband driving directions – you get the feeling this might be a regular occurrence with the couple. Understandably, her husband becomes increasingly frustrated, but the wife is none the wiser, and has a nice nap. Maughan is perfect as the selectively naive and insufferable wife.
The darkest, and arguably most powerful, scene is Road Trip. Again starring Everett, he plays a creepy driver’s ed teacher who has taken a schoolgirl (Zoe Swenson-Graham) on a trip across America. He has already driven for a day, and doesn’t know how long it will be before they reach his secluded cabin in the woods. As their journey progresses – things become more disturbing – the audience learns that the girl kicked him before they left, that she caused a scene in a fast-food restaurant, and now he will only permit her to go to the drive-through. The scene culminates with the older man stroking the girl’s auburn hair as she sleeps. Everett is chilling.
The closing vignette, Autobahn, starring Sharon Maughan and the highly versatile Everett, is its own story about a couple who returned a foster son to care, but it’s also a wider comment bringing together the seven separate scenes. In her monologue, Maughan’s character ponders the German autobahn system: how the people in their cars speed along, cocooned in their bubbles. And yet they may not be protected at all – in her case, her husband has been accused of sexual abuse by their foster son: and though she protests his innocence, her protests ring somewhat hollow by the end of the scene.
Autobahn runs at the King’s Head Theatre until Saturday, September 20th.
Review by Emma Slater
Performance Dates Wednesday 27th August to Saturday 20th September, 7.15pm
Matinees Saturday 20th September, 2pm
Location King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper St, Islington, London N1 1QN
Box Office Tickets are available from kingsheadtheatre.com and 0207 478 0160,
priced at £25 (premium), £20.50 (full price), £17.25-15 (concessions), £10 (previews).
Saturday 30th August 2014