The Twentieth Century Way (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: January 10, 2017 in Theatre

20th-centuryThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Peeling away the layers of Tom Jacobson’s one-act play, here getting its UK Premiere, we find two actors, James Sindall and Fraser Wall, playing two actors, Warren and Brown respectively, playing a variety of characters caught up in intrigue in 1914 Los Angeles. Yes it is confusing and we get only 80 minutes to try and figure it out.

Jacobson’s opening conceit is that Warren and Brown are waiting together to audition for the same part. Warren is older, rugged and confident; Brown is boyish, cocky and has a gift for learning lines of Shakespeare rapidly. Being disciples of Stanislavski, the pair kill time with a spot of improvisation, playing out scenarios in which actors work for the Los Angeles Police Department, getting 15 dollars for every perpetrator of “social vagrancy” (perhaps more widely known here as “cottaging”) that they entrap.

Dealing lightly with sensitive subject matter, Jacobson tells us that “the twentieth century way”, brought about by improved standards of personal hygiene and aided by the invention of the trouser zip, was one of newly-found depravity among closeted gay men. In fact, highly publicised incidents inform us that the LAPD practice of entrapment continued at least until late in the last century, yet, if Jacobson is outraged by this, he does not really express it. References are made to ruined reputations and suicides, but the play’s structure never allows us to see tragic figures, only actors playing them, and any serious dramatic impact is nullified all too quickly.

Written with a fair measure of wit, the play becomes an exploration of the lines between acting and reality in all areas of life. As protagonists, the two men may be Othello and Iago on stage or cop and victim in a public toilet, but, in both cases they are acting their roles. Truth and fiction merge together and become blurred. The actors, now referring to Sindall and Wall, do a terrific job in bouncing Jacobson’s punchy dialogue off each other and director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper keeps the piece moving at a swift pace.

Perhaps we could have hoped for a play that issues a salutary warning to Trump’s America not to revert to habits that have properly been left behind in the last century, but this is not that play. Instead, we get a self-indulgent comedy packed with theatre jokes, something of a soufflé that is consistently amusing, but quickly forgettable.

Performance date: 9 January 2017


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