THE PRESIDENT OF AN EMPTY ROOM
National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 28 June, 2005
***

Steven Knight already has three published novels, a solid career in television comedy scriptwriting and an Oscar-nominated screenplay (Dirty Pretty Things), as well as having co-devised the format of game show Who Wants To be A Millionaire?  He confesses to being not much of a theatregoer, so how does his first attempt at writing for the stage measure up?

To be honest, damned if I know. He has a fine ear for well-turned phrases, but these might simply sound too contrived outside the atmosphere of magic realism in this Cuban tale. He shows some instinct for what works and flows onstage, although it's hard to tell at this point how much is due to the National Theatre's dramaturgical process, or indeed how interested Knight might be in knuckling down and applying himself to do better. And he knew what he wanted to write something about cigars, involving the supernatural but he never gets around to finding a real subject.

Miguel (Paul Hilton) is the senior roller in a cigar factory. When his beloved sets out for Key West as a boat-refugee, he goes back on to heroin and declares himself democratic president of the now unsupervised rolling room. There's a great deal of banter and horseplay of various kinds between the rollers, who range from young female Michael Jackson fans to a couple of disabled war veterans. Voodoo gets added to the mix as a pretext for visions and truth-telling, and the working day ends with Miguel alone, stoned and on a narrative note that I frankly can't decipher.

The rolling desks onstage look familiar from the Hampstead Theatre's recent production of Nilo Cruz's cigar play Anna In The Tropics, although at close quarters this cast don't seem as skilled at the actual business. Like that earlier play, too, these actors (under the direction of Howard Davies, who usually knows better) adopt a variety of pseudo-Cuban accents from the Speedy Gonzales to, in the cases of the redoubtable Stephen Moore and Jim Carter, the desultory or non-existent. The play bowls along for two hours, sometimes amusing, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes vaguely suggesting some kind of profundity but never coming into focus, and then it stops. Neither the cigars nor the play are in the same league as Hamlet.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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