The Charing Cross Theatre has followed the trends of performance art for more than a century. It used to be a music hall. Then it put in a stint as a cinema. Now it’s a small theatre and it specialises in experimental comedies.
The Man on her Mind fits the bill nicely. It opens with Nellie, a sexy young book editor, being seduced in her one-bedroom flat by her handsome lover. There’s a knock on the door. The lover hides in the bathroom. In comes Nellie’s horrible sister, Janet, and she — surprise, surprise — needs the bathroom. She goes in and the lover is discovered. But no. The lover isn’t discovered. The lover doesn’t exist. He’s a figment of Nellie’s imagination.
Janet knows all about her sister’s psychological fetish and she’s determined to exorcise the ghost by fixing Nellie up with a real man. He’s called Leonard. So Nellie and Leonard meet. And guess what? Leonard has an imaginary lover too. Coincidence? You bet. The pair become romantically entangled and each conceives a jealous dislike of the other’s fictional companion. Then the fictional companions meet, too, in a rather vague location, and they agree to form a weird spiritual union.
The plot’s symmetrical neatness is brought to perfection by the witty detail that Leonard is a professional ghost-writer. And this is where the whole effort falls to pieces. The playwright, Alan Hruska, has created a diagram rather than a drama. Lovingly and with exquisite care, he has built a plot with all the pleasing harmonies of Euclidian geometry and none of the roughness and unpredictability of real life. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for two characters whose emotional capital is vested in a phantasm. And inevitably, one’s interest drifts towards the sane characters, Janet and her husband. Unfortunately, they’re a pair of witless, small-minded social cripples whose main ambition is to bully Nellie and Leonard.
The play constantly jumps between Nellie’s flat and Leonard’s house and each leap involves complex manoeuvrings of fake doorframes and walls-on-wheels. These shifts take so long that the stage hands have devised dances and pieces of mime to cheer up the crowd during the transitions.Amazingly silly. An experienced writer could have saved thousands of pounds inneedless duplications of furniture. And with that cash, he could have hired ascript editor to help him write a play rather than an artful web of narrative possibilities.
Next stop, the Print Room, in Notting Hill, a small, boutique theatre with lovely staff and an intimate, welcoming feel. Its mission is to offer high-grade drama at about half the price of the West End. In March, it staged a fabulous version of Uncle Vanya, starring Iain Glen, which was such a wow that it came back in the summer to perform a lap of honour. Its latest offering, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), is an import from the US.
A quick skim of the programme informed that this stood a great chance of being a winner. Those canny Americans have devised an infallible tool for finding plays of exceptional lousiness and alerting the world to their horrors. It’s called the Pulitzer Prize. And no such condemnation has been heaped upon this show. It opened in darkness. A handsome young actor named John Light addressed the crowd in halting and informal tones. His monologue developed into a piece of stand-up comedy to be delivered as a pulpit address.
This, however, turned out to be a problem because John Light (decent performer) is obliged to make comments to individuals in the audience but the script allows him no scope to improvise or react to them. The result is amazingly stilted. It doesn’t help that the monologue has no subject, no theme and no direction. It’s an exercise in humourless, halfwitted, sub-Beckettian twaddle-mongering.
Here’s one of its more riveting flourishes. The actor announces that all the tickets for the show have been entered for a raffle and that someone in the audience is about to win a prize. ‘Here we go,’ he says. ‘Who has the luck tonight?’ Then he says, ‘There is no raffle. Who said there was going to be a raffle? The good news is, you didn’t lose. You lost nothing except the time it took to find this out.’
At this point someone clunked noisily out of the room. Over the next half-hour he was followed by several more escapees and their departure, in such a small space, seemed a deliberately discourtesy. But then so did the play. ‘The Print Room needs your support,’ declares their brochure. ‘Help us to keep things happening.’ Righty-oh, chaps, but help yourselves first.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012