The chap in the rear stalls who heckled the press-night performance of Kevin Elyot's Mouth To Mouth for daring (horrors!) to use the F-word in a portrayal of a middle-class family get-together may have been both incomprehensible and moronic, but at least he knew what we may charitably call his mind about the play. After a second viewing – first at the Royal Court earlier this year, and now on its West End transfer to the Albery – I feel I am no closer to any firm conclusions about it than I was first time round.
Elyot has written a beautifully intricate piece in terms both of structure (with a V-shaped time-line, flashing back from the present to that crucial evening a year ago, then forward again through continuations of each of the previous scenes) and emotional response. He does not alternate his waspish comedy and his sombre tragedy in a crude sucker-punch fashion, but in every scene blends the two together so that they progress inextricably hand in hand. The atmosphere of Proustian memory is finely captured in Ian Rickson's production, so that events seem to unfold at once with the distance of a dream and with a keen immediacy. Michael Maloney and Lindsay Duncan give superb performances as Frank, a none too successful playwright living none too successfully with AIDS, and his best friend Laura, a discontented wife and possessive mother from whom Frank conceals a guilty secret regarding her now-deceased son.
And yet, and yet, and yet. All of these wonderful achievements remain at every moment visible; they never efface themselves to allow our unambiguous immersion in the 90 minutes of the play. Frank's remarks about his self-preoccupation as a writer and his dilemma about whether or not to use the crucial incident with young Philip as source material for a play suggest a degree of coy author-surrogacy. (One of my colleagues noted on the play's Royal Court opening that Maloney onstage also looks not unlike director Rickson; moreover, it's not impossible that Frank's doctor, a coke-snorting bitch-queen, may be played here by Ian Gelder with some mannerisms of Rickson's predecessor as Court supremo, Stephen Daldry.) The deliberateness with which young Philip is described as being fifteen years old – quite precisely just below the age of consent – yet played by Andrew McKay as appreciably older suggests that Elyot and Rickson want to have it both ways: to get the shock of Frank's infatuation with an underage boy, but without having the age so conspicuous that it becomes necessary to address the issue in a way that the play in fact shirks. The supernatural elements in the first and last scenes seem quite at odds with the rest of the tone, as if the ghosts which haunt Frank and Laura become for brief instants bizarrely literal.
Mouth To Mouth is a terrifically crafted evening. But the craft is always to the fore.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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