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Review of Devil With The Blue Dress at The Bunker

Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Daniella Isaacs and Dawn Hope) - courtesy of Helen Murray
Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Daniella Isaacs and Dawn Hope) – courtesy of Helen Murray

The Monica Lewinsky story is a classic of modern American Politics. It has all the attributes of the archetypal Greco-Shakespearian tragicomedy – power, lust, lies and retribution laced with quirky characters, farcical situations and idiosyncratic language. Writer Kevin Armento, in his play Devil with the Blue Dress, fails to recognise any of this dramatic potential opting instead to give us a bland, over-wordy, monotonous ninth-grade history essay which lacks drama and proper scrutiny of character. Armento merely re-hashes all the well known and well-worn elements of the story, scratching the surface without an in-depth insight into motivations and what really was going on in the White House. The show itself is not helped by Joshua McTaggart’s veritably stodgy direction which sees, for the most part, one of the five characters holding court centre stage while the other four take up positions on the edges: its tedious in the extreme.

The cast is the one saving grace of the show, an ensemble of talented performers who give it their all but one would have thought that, at some point in the rehearsal process, someone might have said “Er… Josh, do you think we could move around a bit – rather than standing here like lemons all the time?” After all, Armento demands, in his singularly pretentious production notes, “Lots of stage magic”. If there was any it flew right over my head.

With an all-female cast of five one is tempted to paraphrase Tom Stoppard and ask: “Where is Bill?”. Bill is voiced, as they say in the cartoon world, by various members of the cast with various degrees of success. Sometimes Bill is voiced through hand-held microphones – which is odd. Later he is voiced without the microphones which, having used them to delineate Bill, is even odder.

Hillary opens the show for us in “her play”. Yeah, Armento wants us all to know that his play is meta theatre. But when this is mentioned for the umpteenth time in the show by Hillary and others then we have wandered into meta-meta theatre: i.e. we are an audience watching a play that is played by actors who are in the play and talking about the play and telling the audience they are in a play that they themselves are watching and you the audience are actually not in on the theatrical in-joke and are probably very confused. (I refer my learned friend to the mini-masterpiece What Theatre Really Is by the late lamented James Saunders for a much more pithy exploration of meta-theatre.) The point is this: if there were no mentions of “this is my play” in the show nobody would notice any difference. Yes: it’s a self-indulgent theatrical nicety.

Hillary is effectively played by Flora Montgomery: she’s all pink-suit and strait-lace. She doesn’t do emotion and frankly there’s not much here for Montgomery to work with – all we see is the Hillary we’ve all already seen – and she strives to put some energy into what is written as a de-energised character: is it too much to ask to see what might well have happened between her and Bill when he finally confessed? But you can’t do that if Bill is merely voiced.

We are treated to some long-looked-for and welcome comic touches by Emma Handy as Linda and Dawn Hope as Betty but these are few and far between. And the plum part of Monica is given as much gusto as she is allowed to by Daniella Isaacs. It must be truly difficult to play the “smooth and seductive’ (Armento again) mistress of power when that power is merely voiced.

Best of all is Kristy Philipps as Chelsea who manages, against all odds, to summon up some real, heartfelt emotion but is again held on the tight leash of pedestrian direction. Philipps is also the best, most convincing, Voice of Bill.

Before the show there is saxophone music played by Tashomi Balfour. This guy is demonstrably a good technical musician who makes a resonant sound but the tuneless meandering around trills and half-scales becomes wearing and not a little irritating. (Give us a blast of “Baker Street” I managed to stop myself shouting.) This is meant to be improvisation. But, in my opinion, it is not. Improvisation, I believe, has a theme and a structure. All the notes are there and they are played tunefully but there is nothing to hold it together.

Which is exactly like the script: all the facts are there. And they are played beautifully. But there is no intelligible theme to hold it together. Is it about Monica? No; it’s “My play” says Hillary. Is it about Hillary? No it’s actually “Monica’s play” apparently. Is it about power? No; politics don’t really feature at all other than as a cursorily mentioned backdrop. Is it about lust? No; sexual exploits are treated purely in a matter-of-fact way. Is it about lies? No; they just happen and are reported. Is it about Bill…? No; he’s just a voice.

The sax continues its non-improvisation throughout the show: the downbeat nature of the music (no fault of Balfour – he presumably plays what he’s told) further dampens any hope of excitement. Using frequent sax short trills as ’phone rings is an intriguing theatrical device that one normally would expect in Junior School productions: it seems wildly out of place here. As does designer Basia Bińkowska’s pristine white wall with Bill’s most famous words graffiti-scrawled on it. Sledgehammer. Nut. Jess Bernberg makes good use of the space and limited resources to come up with a mood-reflective lighting design though when you have a Sound Designer (Anna Clock) and an Assistant Sound Designer one would have thought they could come up with a less-ridiculous ring-tone.

The rigid historical structure of the piece – despite the annoying and at times confusing time-slips – will be of interest to those who don’t know the story – but it is implicit in the way the show is written that we all do. So I think the best one can say of Devil in the Blue Dress is: nice try – but no cigar.

3 Star Review

Review by Peter Yates

January 1998: America is rocked by one of the biggest political sex scandals of all time.
Slyly exhuming the little blue dress that launched the biggest media circus of a generation, the five women who were at the centre of the infamous Monica Lewinsky scandal collide on stage in this political thriller. A First Lady, a secretary, a daughter, a confidant, and an intern take us through the corridors of power and behind the closed doors where the abuse of that power took place.

A theatrical battle over exactly how it all went down, DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS asks who were the heroes and villains, and why, twenty years later, we’re only beginning to grapple with one of the most challenging questions in American political history: How do we respond to women seeking power, and the men who misuse it?

Playwright Kevin Armento
Director Joshua McTaggart
Producer The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions and Desara Bosnja
Designer Basia Bińkowska
Lighting Designer Jess Bernberg
Sound Designer Anna Clock
CAST
Hilary Clinton – Flora Montgomery
Monica Lewinsky – Daniella Isaacs
Linda Tripp – Emma Handy
Betty – Dawn Hope
Chelsea Clinton – Kristy Philipps

The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja present
DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS
by Kevin Armento
directed by Joshua McTaggart
PERFORMANCE DATES & TIME
29 March – 28 April 2018
https://www.bunkertheatre.com/

Author

  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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