Danny Webb (James), Toby Jones (Schultz), Fenella Woolgar (Theresa)
Imelda Staunton (Marty)
Imelda Staunton (Marty), Toby Jones (Schultz)
Toby Jones (Schultz), Fenella Woolgar (Theresa)
Imelda Staunton (Marty), Fenella Woolgar (Theresa), Shannon Tarbet (Lauren), Toby Jones (Schultz), Danny Webb (James)
Gritty new writing powerhouse the Royal Court often seems embarrassed by its hyper-posh Sloane Square address – which part-explains new boss Vicky Featherstone’s decision to stage her theatre’s big summer play off-site.
But this Haggerston community centre is an inspired venue to decamp to, in that US playwright Annie Baker’s fantastically deadpan play is set in a near-identical building in New England. Director James MacDonald uses the verity of the location superbly in a production that’s delivered with all the po-faced, lo-fi élan of a good Christopher Guest mockumentary.
Heading the cast in her Royal Court debut (of sorts), Imelda Staunton is entirely wonderful as Marty, the good-hearted, slightly condescending leader of a small-town acting group, an unbearably serene woman whose life gracefully falls apart over six weeks of ludicrous dramatic exercises.
Toby Jones is splendid as the pathologically awkward Schultz, a repressed divorcee who has clearly joined the group out of a sense of loneliness rather than any desire to act.
Which is fine, because as youngest member Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) is bemused to discover, the group doesn’t do any actual acting – the class is more like a weird, non-specific therapy session for people who don’t want to face up to the fact they’re in dire emotional straits.
Playing out in short, po-faced scenes that usually end during a particularly awkward pause, Baker’s writing is compassionate, cinematic (in an understated sort of way) and wonderfully, wonderfully droll. She never patronises her emotionally stunted oddballs, but she has a great eye for small-town tics and eccentricities. And after two hours of gentle build she finds a payoff that’s both emotionally appropriate and appropriately quirky.
Speaking of transformations: a doff of the cap to dialect coach Penny Dwyer. The American accents are uniformly flawless, with Fenella Woolgar – an actor I’d always assumed could only ‘do’ posh – revelatory as shifty hippie chick Teresa.
By Andrzej Lukowski
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