SPIKE
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Opened 6 February, 2001

"You know, writing a black comedy set in a car showroom is rather like making love to a beautiful woman: you have to know when to nuzzle, and where to bite." However, those going to Southampton's Nuffield Theatre expecting Swiss Toni-type material will be surprised. For a start, the author of Spike is not Simon Day the Fast Show regular, but his actor namesake. Moreover, Spike is at times a savage piece of work.

Vernon King runs a luxury car sales business, bolstered by his mousewife Violet, sneered at by his militant environmentalist daughter Verity and aided by his ambitious deputy Dean (Paul Panting, who gets to live up to his name a couple of times as the evening progresses). When a young asthmatic street boy bursts through the plate-glass window one night, Vernon (who devoutly thanks God for his chance to repatriate vast amounts of money from oil sheikhs to good Christian folk) decides that the lad is in fact the Holy Ghost and sets about nursing him back to health; both his and Dean's designs on Babs the temp are rather less than spiritual. In two and a half hours, we encounter a campaign to ruin the business, sex frustrated, sex embarrassingly consummated (only once with a flesh-and-blood partner), poison, coronary, terrorism and, well, let's just say that of the six characters, five or fewer are alive by the final curtain.

Richard Briers as Vernon is jowly and growly, looking a little like Lyndon B. Johnson but without LBJ's cuddly charm (his nickname for his wife is not "Vi" but "Vile"), and his daughter Lucy is accomplished at bitter defiance as Verity. Writer Day is Lucy Briers' partner (and how he must love her, to write specifically for her a character who for much of the play is so unpleasant and so reviled), and there is a certain amount of knowing family referentiality, as when Vernon rebukes Verity, "Don't ever ruin your father's punchline!"

Spike has a number of first-play characteristics: the blackness and the comedy jostle each other rather awkwardly until flowing together in an excellent pair of final scenes, only to be wrenched apart again by a few too many twists in the closing minutes, not to mention a final dilemma straight out of Accidental Death Of An Anarchist. Director Dominic Hill paces matters well to try and smooth out the bumps, but for much of the evening there is no obvious location either for our primary sympathy or unambiguous condemnation, nor are the characters rounded enough to get by without either. But there is enough gold – here a line or two, there an entire scene – to make Simon Day worth keeping an eye on as a writer. And not a sign of Dave Angel, Eco-Warrior.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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