Lloyd Evans

Bloated waffle: Jitney at the Old Vic reviewed

Plus: a funny, sweet-natured play with a powerful anti-lockdown message at the Royal Court

Bloated waffle: Jitney at the Old Vic reviewed
Sule Rimi as Turnbo and Leanne Henlon as Rena in Jitney. Credit: Manuel Harlan
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Old Vic, until 9 July

That Is Not Who I Am

Royal Court, until 16 July

The Old Vic’s new show, Jitney, has a mystifying YouTube advert which gives no information about the play or the characters. If the producers paid for the marketing themselves, they’d do a better job.

The advert fails even to mention that ‘Jitney’ is Pittsburgh slang for ‘taxi’ and that the action is set in a cab firm in the 1970s. The boss, Becker, is a growling despot who dominates his crew of uppity young drivers by glaring at them psychotically. The prattling cabbies hang around the office gossiping about casual sex and petty crime. Or they ogle porno magazines. Or they show off their bedroom technique by thrusting their pelvises towards the viewers in row A.

Nothing happens for an hour. Dreary stuff. A bust-up arises between Youngblood and his girlfriend, Rena, over an alleged infidelity and the couple whine at each other for ages. Then there’s a fight between Youngblood and Turnbo, who waves a pistol around. Youngblood looks a bit worried about having his brains blown out at work. But it’s hard to get excited by these macho tussles because the characters are such flimsy, tantrum-prone cry babies and weaklings. It’s like watching the final episode of a dying soap opera.

Another plot thread emerges which reuses the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird in almost every detail. Isn’t it a bit naughty to copy another writer’s homework? The yarn about a false rape claim leads to a row between Becker and his son, Booster, and the pair have a screaming match that lasts half an hour. If you like watching grown men bawling and sobbing, this could be the highlight of your year.

No platitude in the lexicon of stage anger is omitted. They square up, nose-to-nose. They punch the furniture. They seethe and hiss. They plunge to their knees and fling their heads around while tearing at their clothing and yelling about the cruelty of life. It’s the kind of exhibition you see in the park on a Sunday when a footballer misses a penalty during a minor league match. And it’s poor stage technique. Letting actors go to the farthest limits of passion has a distancing effect on the audience. It leaves you cold and bored. Intensely emotional speeches are just as effective at a conversational level.

This bloated waffle lasts nearly three hours and could easily have been cut down to a crisp 90 minutes. But no one is allowed to improve the script because it’s part of a sacred monument, a ten-play epic called the ‘American Century Cycle’, in which August Wilson ‘chronicles the African-American experience’. Treating a drama as holy writ may excite the producers but it doesn’t serve the interests of play-goers who don’t care about cultish distractions. They want entertainment, not religion. The hope that black people will flock to a production because it has an all-black cast is condescending. The press-night crowd was almost as white as Glastonbury. If the pitch to the black community is ‘support this show because it’s about us’, that isn’t good enough. Nor is this play.

That Is Not Who I Am is a new romcom by ‘Dave Davidson’ who turns out to be Lucy Kirkwood. Her identity has been concealed as part of a quasi-legal hoax by the theatre which informs audiences that the events of the play are under investigation and that each performance breaches an unspecified ‘embargo’. It’s a decent marketing ploy. And they push it hard. On press night the hacks were given a double-sealed playscript and strict orders not to open it during the show.

The lovers, Celeste and Noah, are handsome oddballs thrown together on a blind date. Celeste is a nurse and Noah works as an electrician but he becomes paranoid about digital surveillance and insists that they cancel their TV subscriptions. Even Netflix. Celeste is horrified. Netflix? She’s only halfway through Broadchurch. She gives birth to a child who suffers from insomnia so they sing it to sleep with the rap classic ‘Here comes the hot stepper, murderer/ I’m the lyrical gangster, murderer’.

The pair make videos about the suppression of freedom by the Big Brother state and become stars overnight. When Covid strikes they shout abuse at their moronic neighbours for bashing saucepans with spoons on Thursday evenings for the NHS. Lockdown deepens their fears and they go entirely off grid. At home they wear masks to thwart facial recognition scanners and they store their cash in a fireproof box in the oven.

All these strange twists are presented in the same witty, light-hearted manner. The closing scenes seem a bit rushed and overblown but that doesn’t harm the core material. This is a funny, sweet-natured marital comedy with a powerful anti-lockdown message. The cast are led by the charismatic Priyanga Burford, as the narrator, and Siena Kelly as a subtle and sublimely funny Celeste.