Cole Theatre at A Red Orchid Theatre. By Mike Leigh. Directed by Shade Murray. With Maura Kidwell, Michaela Petro, Layne Manzer, Boyd Harris, Joel Reitsma, Lauren Pizzi. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Mike Leigh’s 1979 drama makes an interesting and ambitious inaugural outing for Cole Theatre, a new Equity company launched by Boyd Harris and Layne Manzer, who also make up one third of the production’s cast. Like Leigh’s films, this piece about a collection of working-class Londoners struggling through the Winter of Discontent was created by the writer-director through extensive improvisation with his ensemble. That process lends itself to a finished script full of rambling, wayward exchanges that can feel a bit foreign in the mouths of this talented cast, even as they find their characters’ emotional cores.
The play takes place in the kind of shabby apartment the British tend to term a “grotty bedsit”—a single small room with a kitchenette and a space heater where the electric meter is coin-operated and the shared bathroom is outside and down the hall. It belongs to Jean (Maura Kidwell), a smart, pretty girl who’s drained by what she sees as the pointlessness of her life.
The lights come up on her in a moment of post-coital non-bliss with Roy (Joel Reitsma), the married lover who treats her like dirt. (Leigh’s title, you quickly realize, is rather ironic.) The brief first act establishes this toxic relationship and indicates it’s the only kind Jean ever seems to find, while also introducing Dawn (Michaela Petro), Jean’s bawdy former roommate who’s harried by two troublemaking kids and her heavy-drinking Irish husband, Mick (Harris).
Act II, which is more than twice as long as the first, is a single scene chronicling a late, drunken after-party following a night at the pubs, to which Dawn and Roy invited Len (Manzer), a gentle, newly divorced construction worker nursing an old crush on Jean. The four swig beers and smoke endless cigarettes, dance to Elvis Presley records and sing drinking songs, while we yearn to see if Len will gather the courage to declare his feelings, and if Jean will allow herself to receive them.
Director Shade Murray and his cast navigate this emotional squalor marvelously; Kidwell sketches Jean’s passive, resigned intake of everything that’s asked of her with heartrending honesty, and Manzer plays Len’s tender timidity with endearing care. Scenic designer Grant Sabin’s grubby little room makes good use of the close confines of A Red Orchid Theatre, which Cole has rented for its production, to tell us everything we need to know about these characters’ station.
And yet there’s just a bit of a disconnect between that working-class environment and these attractive young actors. Kidwell, as an example, sells Jean’s emotional situation movingly and persuasively. What’s harder to buy is that she can’t escape a job selling petrol as a gas station clerk.