Avant-garde director's theatre and gritty street-talking satire are pretty rare bedfellows. But David Lan's trippy production of Nathaniel Martello-White's debut play – a dark comedy about the soul-crushing lot of small-time black screen actors – works surprisingly well. True, there's the odd moment of ludicrous overindulgence, notably an excruciating 'Star Wars'-themed dream sequence. But by and large the production's cartoon aesthetic opens up a play that might otherwise have felt like a bit of an industry-centric whine.
In the soulless warehouse-style waiting room of Jeremy Herbert's set, a variety of black male actors, identified only by the colour of their skin – eg Brown (Anthony Welsh), Black (Daniel Francis) and Yellow (Howard Charles) – banter aggressively with each other, each trying to conceal how desperate he is to succeed in 'the thing', ie the white-controlled industry.
Every now and again, one of them is called across a conveyer belt and into an empty neon-lit room, where he is required to perform some sort of humiliating party trick (which rarely has anything to do with acting) before a red, amber or green light indicates how 'well' he is deemed to have done by unseen onlookers.
Abstract as the presentation may be, Martello-White's salty, realist dialogue has the unmistakeable tang of truth to it. And the excellent ensemble are entirely credible as sensitive men with tough façades, each becoming increasingly frayed as he grinds his way through a system concerned only with token representation. Francis's Black is particularly good, a troubled, probably gay older man whose build and looks have left him trapped in an alpha male role both on and off screen.
Lan's production sometimes conveys the sense of purgatorial void a little too well: there is plenty of detail but not much plot, and with the big laughs all elicited by industry in-jokes, two hours without an interval feels a slog. But the unfairness of 'the thing' is spelled out powerfully in Martello-White's promising and original debut, which never has to preach to get its message across.
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