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American playwright Annie Baker's off-Broadway smash about a failing cinema arrives in London
A few years back a YouTube video did the rounds in which Justin Bieber’s infuriatingly catchy pre-teen smash ‘Baby’ was slowed down by 800%, turning the sturdy pop song into something altogether more alien and profound.
And I guess that’s kind of the same deal as the Pulitzer Prize-wining latest from rising star US playwright Annie Baker. ‘The Flick’ is a bittersweet, relatively standard comedy about three employees at a shabby Massachusetts cinema. Except its feel is completely changed by the gargantuan silences that yawn throughout. At least a third of its vast, three-hour-15-minute running time is taken up by scenes of Avery (Jaygann Ayeah), Rose (Louisa Krause) and Sam (Matthew Maher) looking blankly at each other, ignoring each other, or simply cleaning the cinema for minutes on end.
My notepad includes such profound observations as ‘Pinter directing Woody Allen!’ and ‘Pinter directing “Family Guy”!’, but the truth of the matter is that ‘The Flick’ is the embodiment of a very different pause to the menacing silences of Harold Pinter. It’s the pause of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, or Wes Anderson, or ‘Garden State’, or ‘Tiny Furniture’, the millennial pause, in which blank stares and unnatural stillness serve as shorthand for egregious emotional damage and social disenfranchisement.
Sam Gold’s production is a more-or-less wholesale transfer of his original New York one (Krause and Maher were in the off-Broadway cast). I know people who’ve raved about ‘The Flick’ as a life changing experience, and there is something undeniably beautiful about it. It’s a portrait of a generation struggling through life without moorings, that also beautifully and often hilariously observes the strange, fragile nature of work friendships, enforced intimacy with virtual strangers.
The silences certainly amplify the confusion of ‘The Flick’s characters, mirrors the fug of their pain, elevates the mundanity of their situation. And yet it bugged me. Baker’s characters are framed as naturalistic portraits, but actually their behaviour is incredibly eccentric, with both Avery and Sam seemingly bordering on the profoundly autistic in their inability to respond with any measure of empathy to fellow human beings.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that ‘The Flick’s glacial pacing and stylised stares amounts to a fetishisation of a crumbling smalltown world, a platonic ideal of millennial angst. The playwright celebrates these characters, but in doing so she pins them under glass, stuffs and mounts them, overpowers them with epic pauses that are more articulate than they are.
And yet if this is the case ‘The Flick’ is magnificent, almost operatic in its overblown eccentricities. Take out the very specific stage directions and there’s a snappy, conventional 90-minute comedy in Baker’s script. But I suppose ultimately I’d choose this maddening epic any day.