Kiss of the Spider Woman (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Posted: March 24, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: José Rivera and Allan Baker (from Manuel Puig’s novel)      Director: Laurie Sansom

⭐⭐💫

Already an Oscar winning film and a Broadway musical, it would have seemed that nothing could go wrong with adapting Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel into a stage play. Unfortunately not so. It all starts really well, with Jon Bausor, like many designers at the Menier before him, having created not merely a set but a transformation of the entire space. We enter an ugly, unwelcoming underground Argentinian dungeon and two prisoners are already prowling around their cell as we prepare to share in an immersive experience. The prisoners are Molina (Samuel Barnett), a camp homosexual who is there for acts of “gross indecency” and Valentin (Declan Bennett), an opponent of the ruling military junta.

Even if we are unfamiliar with other versions, we can guess at the outset that this is going to be a story of extreme opposites converging and indeed it is, but only in the second half of the play. Before that, Molina attempts to alleviate Valentin’s boredom by recounting the stories of Hollywood fantasy films to him. In the Kander and Ebb musical, these stories could be turned into lively and lavish production routines, but, here, all we get is shadowy projections onto the side walls and the whole thing becomes very turgid very quickly and then drags on for at least another half an hour. Valentin’s boredom is no longer the problem, it is ours. The play turns at about half way when we see a prison guard (Grace Cookey-Gam) embroiling Molina in an implausible plot to extract information from Valentin, but it is too late to fully repair the damage.

The great pity is that History Boys alumnus Barnett is wonderful as the resilient, but vulnerable Molina, not overdoing the campness at any point. Bennett too impresses as the noble freedom fighter Valentin and the closing scenes, when the bond between the two characters has been sealed, are genuinely moving. After three successive productions at the Menier that have been, at very least, disappointing, it had been hoped that this would have been the one to get the tiny venue that has always punched above its weight back on the right track, but we shall have to wait a little longer for that to happen.

Performance date: 22March 2018

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