The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: March 26, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Ali Wright

Writer and director: Edward Einhorn
⭐️⭐️

The celebrated writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/wife Alice B Toklas were Americans in Paris long before Gene Kelly went there to dance. According to US writer Edward Einhorn’s play, receiving its European premiere, they were part of an artsy set that populated the French capital in the early part of the 20th Century, flouting society’s conventions and getting away with it the name of “genius”.

As the title states, the story centres entirely around the wedding of the two women. This is the sort of play, packed with intellectual pretentiousness, that frequently wows New York audiences a long way off Broadway and it seems to have found an equivalent London home in a basement near to Piccadilly Circus. The characters mill around and discuss art and death, love and sex, just as we imagine artistic folk always do, but none of the conversations go anywhere.

Rarely can a play have made such a big deal out of actors doubling up on roles, presenting it in the text as a joke in the opening scene and then repeating the joke over and over again until it becomes exceedingly tiresome. Everyone on stage, at some point, is a character “pretending” to be another character.

On the rare occasions when the real people are allowed to come through, Natasha Byrne (Gertrude) and Alyssa Simon (Alice) are a touching, mildly eccentric couple. They whet the appetite for the story to be retold in a more cohesive, less gimmicky form. Mark Huckett is a boorish, hard drinking Ernest Hemingway and Kelly Burke is a flamboyant Pablo Picasso. The four actors share the wedding guests, who include TS Eliot, James Joyce and Thornton Wilder.

Machiko Weston’s set design, an array of empty white picture frames, unintentionally reflects a play that is showy, but short on real substance.  Einhorn’s production of his own work is billed as a comedy, but most of the laughs come in the form of embarrassed sniggers when actors are being particularly silly. A prevailing air of flippancy makes the evening palatable, but it persistently undermines efforts to get scenes taken seriously.

Running for just 90 minutes, this bizarre play has two acts but no proper interval, just a short break in which the whole audience is served “Champagne” to toast the happy couple. The show finds a way to bring some welcome cheer after all.

Performance date: 22 March 2022

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