Good Canary**** (Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames)

Posted: October 8, 2016 in Theatre

good-canaryIt is not often that directors become box office draws. In films maybe Hitchcock or Spielberg, but in theatre? Well what about John Malkovich? His name certainly seems big enough to get theatregoers scurrying out to Kingston without the attraction of an established writer or big stars. And his direction is good, very good, but the icing on the cake is that the writing and the acting are superb too.

American writer Zach Helm’s play, centring on drug addiction in literary  circles, comes very soon after Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things explored similar themes in the acting profession and there is hardly anything between the two works in terms of quality. Jack (Harry Lloyd) is a novelist who has just hit the big time, but he has a problem wife, Annie (Freya Mavor) who is hopelessly addicted to drugs and, at times, out of control. Jack’s publisher, Charlie (Steve John Shepherd) is eager to cash in on the success, but begs with Jack to keep Annie out of sight. Easier said than done.

Helm’s writing often has touches of David Mamet, sharp, snappy and incisive, but the big difference is that this is a play with real heart. Mavor is little short of sensational as Annie, catching the character’s mood swings with absolute assurance. She buys speed by the bucket load and works off her frenzies with frantic bouts of housework (can I borrow her please?), but she is on a spiral that is only going downwards. Ilan Goodman provides welcome light relief as her drug dealer, so unthreatening that he could be a pizza delivery boy. When Annie turns up at a cocktail party where guests include a vitriolic literary critic (Simon Wilson) pandemonium breaks out.

The cocktail party is one of three key scenes directed with precision by Malkovich, characters shuffling around in varying degrees of discomfort, This follows the housework scene when the projected backdrop takes on the life of a psychedelic cartoon. The third comes after Annie has returned from rehab; she and Jack embrace on the couch, staying silent as their dialogue appears behind them and a piano tinkles in the background. This emphasises that, apart from being a harsh tale of addiction, the play is also the most tender of love stories and Lloyd’s portrayal of Jack’s complete devotion becomes heartbreaking.

Helm is showing us that Annie’s addiction has become part of her destructive personality, part of who she is and that, when she and her drugs are seperated, she will not really exist. A bleak message perhaps, but this play is so compelling that it does not seem so. A deceit in the first act works well at the time, but seems to cheapen the play when thought about afterwards. Otherwise, this is quite an impressive achievement and one of the most enthralling productions seen so far this year.

Performance date: 6 October 2016

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