Lloyd Evans

Deplorable entertainment

Plus: a post-truth Peter Pan where the ethereal innocence of the original has been brought down to earth in a series of urban settings

Deplorable entertainment
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Buried Child

Trafalgar Studios, until 18 February 2017

Peter Pan

Olivier, in rep until 4 February 2017

Buried Child is a typical Sam Shepard play. The main character, Dodge, is a brain-damaged alcoholic cripple stuck in a Midwest shack with a half-witted xenophobic wife shrieking at him from the coal cellar. The wife makes an early speech about her son who ‘married a Catholic whore’ and got stabbed to death by her on his honeymoon. This sets the tone for the play. Every character is a shrill, chippy barbarian and every speech is an exercise in tragicomic one-upmanship. The audience for Shepard’s work consists of social voyeurs who want to gawp at the underclass from a safe distance.

The play purports to be a mystery but the family secret is revealed in the title. Even so, Shepard proceeds as if there were a puzzle to solve. He keeps offering us ‘clues’. A clod-hopper called Tilden limps on stage bearing a harvest of miraculous corn, gathered from the backyard, which causes both his parents to have fits of high-decibel guilt. Tilden peels the corn and then clod-hops back out and returns with a fresh harvest. Carrots this time. He duly peels them while attempting to bond with Dodge. More invalids lurch in. Drunken Vince arrives with whiny Shelly who gets crudely tortured by thick Bradley, but she takes revenge by ripping Bradley’s false leg off and clutching it like a baby. Drunken Vince produces a sack of empty bottles and pelts them at the walls while Bradley writhes on the ground attempting to polish the filthy floorboards with his hairdo.

It’s sad to see trained actors dumped on this scrapheap. Barnaby Kay, a rare talent with an athletic build and a poetic nature, is stuck in the role of the brain-dead Tilden, who passes his time on stage beheading carrots and grunting. Ed Harris, as Dodge, rummages among the sofa cushions for a misplaced whiskey bottle but, apart from whinging lugubriously, he has little else to do. Amy Madigan, as the wife, plays her role to perfection by screaming every line at a pitch loud enough to strip the plaque from your teeth. The production was a hit in New York which, I suggest, reflects rather badly on New York. The irony is that the hysterical bumpkins presented here for the titillation of the elite are exactly the sort of people who voted to ‘make America great again’. Their candidate has just seized the White House. Shepard, who clearly detests the American virtues of vitality, grit and ambition, must be hopping mad.

A new production of Peter Pan bears the ominous credit ‘devised by the Companies’. This refers to the NT and Bristol Old Vic, whose actors collaborated on the project. The result is a post-truth Pan where the ethereal innocence of the original has been brought down to earth in a series of urban settings. There are punk references and hip-hop stylings everywhere. Paul Hilton’s Peter is self-consciously attired in a lime-green two-piece suit with a carefully combed rockabilly quiff. He looks like a defrocked Blue Peter presenter making ends meet by dealing whizz on the King’s Road. When he plants a kiss on Wendy’s lips it doesn’t seem sweet or charming, just faintly inappropriate. The brilliant Madeleine Worrall captures the questing eagerness of Wendy without compromising her adult self. If only her siblings, John and Michael (Marc Antolin and John Pfumojela), had followed her example. Both actors make a huge effort to seem infantile but they just look like a pair of removal men hired to wear pyjamas and prat about like kids. Juvenile boys would have suited these roles better. Pop-eyed Felix Hayes, curiously dressed in underpants and a tailcoat, brings a crazed energy to Mr Darling.

The excellent flying sequences are fascinating to watch. Two actors connected by pulleys serve as counterweights to each other. So as one descends the other soars. Neverland looks like a scruffy old warehouse splashed with lurid graffiti. Lois Chimimba plays Tiger Lily as a shouty Glaswegian. Saikat Ahamed (Tinkerbell) wears a shower cap made of fairy lights which makes his face invisible. His researches have revealed that Tinkerbell is a Filipino housemaid who speaks English with a thick Hispanic accent. Most of his lines are unintelligible. The wolves, who are disabled for some reason, limp about on NHS crutches. The crocodile made of corrugated iron has a tail fashioned from an elongated saw. An amazing conceit, brilliantly executed. Captain Hook is superbly done by Anna Francolini with a menacing leer and hideous silvery teeth. But her boxy little ship is neither grand nor formidable. It’s a single-decker and looks like the kind of rust bucket used by the Royal Marines for practising amphibious landings.

My son, aged 10, squirmed a lot during the first half and bombarded me with questions including, ‘When’s the interval?’ His final verdict: ‘Good for children but a bit long.’