Neil LaBute's excellently eerie and often funny short play cycle arrives in London for the first time.
Sometimes eerie, at others funny, Neil LaBute’s ‘Autobahn’ is a toe-dip into an entire generation’s worth of struggles that unravels along the highways of America.
Each of the seven vignettes that make up the short play cycle features two characters sitting in the front seats of a car. In several cases, only one person speaks but with this excellent cast of four – Sharon Maughan, Henry Everett, Zoë Swenson-Graham and Tom Slatter – the silences are as telling as the words.
LaBute introduces us to, among others, two arguing lovers, a mother and daughter on a road trip and a sinister teacher and his student taking a journey together. Questions surrounding the power of language to hurt or heal permeate the script, and it is arresting how all the characters are driven by an urge to confess. When confined to an intimate space that offers no opportunity for escape, even the most self-absorbed of LaBute’s creations are forced to face their own demons.
The speedy on-stage costume changes in Tim Sullivan’s production, such as putting on a different jacket to signify an actor slipping into a new role, showcase the versatility of the cast, but LaBute’s poignant script always steers the show.
Given the sparing use of dialogue it would be easy to underestimate ‘Autobahn’. But that would be a mistake: there’s a whole world of meaning that lurks beneath LaBute’s carefully chosen words.
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There’s nothing better than discovering (and enjoying!) a new play; a new theatre company; a new playwright… and that’s exactly what Savio(u)r brought to the table with their excellent new production of American playwright Neil LaBute’s play ‘Autobahn’, currently playing at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington.
Let’s start off with the premise of the show; during seven short plays we see seven different pairs of people, all in the front seats of cars, all somewhere around Middle America. Each story is completely separate, but they all present something of a misanthropic, dark view on life. In fact, as Sullivan later said, the series should really be entitled: ‘Shit Goes Down’. From the amount of twists and turns and shock revelations, one would think that everybody in the entire world has a murky motive or a shady story. I don’t want to give anything away… but if I just say rehab, swearing, pedophilia, orgies and stalkers, you get the general gist!
The four-strong cast (Tom Slater, Sharon Maughan, Henry Everett and Swenson-Graham) do an outstanding job of embodying all the different characters which flit across the stage with both truthfulness and theatricality. Each of them had at least one incredibly long monologue to deal with, and all managed to engage the audience throughout, interspersing some incredibly uncomfortable moments with some almost equally uneasy moments of comedy. I think this is really one of the strengths of the play; like in Richard III or Collaborators the dark humour makes one’s laughter feel complicit in the disturbing events which are soon revealed. In terms of this particular skill, I felt Everett and Swenson-Graham shone especially.
Since there were only four actors and fourteen different characters all sitting in the same (apparently very difficult to transport!) front of a car, music and costume were key in transforming the scene. After each piece, one actor would remain on stage, shed their previous skin and become the next character, simply by swapping jackets, donning a hat, glasses, lighting a cigarette, chewing some gum or even just tying their hair differently. Sullivan’s choices of music blared out as this was going on, giving a great first impression of the pair; after all, if Take Me Out has taught us anything, it’s that music tells us everything about a person…
Apart from the very cool car front, the setting was incredibly simple – just a screen behind the characters which showed photos; first of which car our characters were driving, and second of the place they were in. These were generally unmoving so as not to distract from the action, but were clearly deeply thought through and subtly added to our perceptions of the characters. The very last photo, however, of a sunset, slowly dims and darkens until, with the darkening of the storyline, the scene closes on a bleak and shadowy prospect – literally and metaphorically.
All in all, this production is excellently done. My only real criticisms are of the script itself; some great elements which at first provide some of the most realistic and funny moments (like the way everyone picks up on language in some way) quickly become, dare I say it, annoying. I mean, it makes it realistic once, but not everyone does it! The twists and turns are surprisingly and sadly predictable – luckily, Sullivan plays on this well and almost rectifies it; “The twist is… that there is no twist.” It really is as bad as one first feared.
As Swenson-Graham said: “The great thing with all the short plays is that if you get bored with one… there’s only five minutes more!” Obviously, this is a massive bonus of the play’s structure. However, out of the seven scenes, there are four with only one character speaking the entire time, whilst the other ignores them for various motives. This was clever the first time, interesting the second, and boring by the third, despite great performances from both actors. Again, I get that this is partly done for theatrical effect, but it just felt overly contrived. Basically I felt that the more interactive scenes (bench seat, merge and road trip) were much more enjoyable and truer to life.
Be that as it may, the themes are interesting, the script is both disturbing and funny, and the production itself is excellent. Savio(u)r have achieved their purpose – I now absolutely want to see some more LaBute – and, in spite of the lack of air conditioning, the King’s Head is a great place to see it in an intimate space. The acting is certainly the highlight of a play which relies heavily on characters; a really interesting and entertaining night out.
(First posted on http://mingledyarns.wordpress.com)