Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 30 December, 2008

It is all but unheard-of for a West End show to open in the fallow period between Christmas and New Year. Strictly speaking, this is merely a transfer: Lisa Kron’s play ran at the Trafalgar Studios during the autumn, and has been upgraded to the Apollo for a few spare weeks between major productions. It both looks and feels out of place here. Nicky Bunch’s fragment-of-a-room set design deliberately appears inadequate on an otherwise bare stage, and Kron’s material is more suited to a studio than a Shaftesbury Avenue playhouse.

This is where things get complicated. Lisa Kron has written a play whose protagonist is Lisa Kron; in the American production, Kron played herself, but here she is played by Natalie Casey. The other major character is Kron’s mother, played by Sarah Miles. Lisa-onstage frequently repeats Kron-author’s assertion that this not “about” their relationship, but rather is an “exploration” of issues of health and illness: Ann has been chronically debilitated for decades, whereas Lisa suffered from severe illnesses when younger but then “got well”. Despite her physical frailty, however, Ann Kron is such a strong personality that she unintentionally wrests Lisa’s play away from her, by suggesting anachronistic or irrelevant episodes and coming to command the attention of the other four actors so that, after Lisa throws a hissy fit, they desert her; Lisa then leaves her mother alone onstage before returning for a final candid duologue.

It’s a piece that plays with theatrical conventions, what we do and don’t expect, and for much the time it is an interesting mess. Not all of its messiness is intentional: why do the supporting actors break character, back into English accents, to converse with Miles, who is still in character as Ann Kron of Michigan? Why does Miles herself break character later but not when the others do? Why, in the midst of all this role confusion, is no allusion whatever made to the fact that Lisa is not actually Lisa? Then, in those final moments, it becomes apparent that the play has merely been biding its time before plunging flagrantly into “this is my therapy” self-indulgence. Just in case we miss the point, the curtain call is taken to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. Subtle as a flying mallet.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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