[Review:] PAPERBOY, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
Upon entering the house, I was delighted to see how much detail had gone into the set’s design. The set teems with the sport-heavy sort of paraphernalia one would associate with the stereotypical modern, upperclass misogynist. There is a lot to look at and, above all, a lot to infuse the set with a sense of realism and credibility. And then I notice Phoebe Taylor-Jones (playing Pheobe) sat at her switched-off MacBook, typing away to a black screen. This completely destroys the illusion. Turn it on! Actually type! Add more to a pre-written word document! Most disappointing. As the performance goes on, this set proves to be more and more problematic, with theatrical properties falling from the table edges and the sides, or being accidentally thrown off stage by the actors themselves. Although, I must admit that whilst this is terrible from a critical perspective, it certainly added a positive sense of chaos and character, with these ‘masculinely charged’ items proving fragile and vulnerable to the touch and with Giorgia Valentino (playing Matt) and Nandini Bulchandani’s (playing Matthew) timely and comical overreactions. But this was not a decisive element of the performance and so cannot be commended, though I can commend Valentino and Bulchandani for their apt and timely responses to these incidences.
The performance begins. Valentino and Bulchandani make for a wonderful comedy duo. They have great stage presence, energy and vigour and, mostly, a great command on their roles. I must admit that Valentino is certainly the stronger performer, however, particularly with the voice Bulchandani has chosen for Matthew often faltering conspicuously. More vocal practice should be done to avoid this. I should also note that the two’s emotional range is somewhat limited – and not in the way it ought to be in presenting two ‘unfeeling’ misogynists. The two performers struggle, it seems, to shift from one emotional state to another. This is most notable for Bulchandani in moments where she is portraying her character’s sudden reconsideration of the nature or appropriateness of his and Matt’s sexist behaviour. Momentum is often slowed in these moments and credibility is lost.
As for Taylor-Jones’s performance, I would recommend more attention to diction. Taylor-Jones slips up on her lines consistently, which is remarkable, considering how few she has. Her characters are well differentiated, however, but I would like to see more variation in her reactions to Matt and Matthew; her staring and the widening or rolling of her eyes become a little repetitive and unimaginative.
Moving on to the writing. This is a very comical and, above all, relatable performance. Its characters, their psychology, motivations and intents are all impeccably conceived, and writer-producer Eve Lytollis certainly knows how to communicate her sociopolitical messages to an audience, overall. However, it is a lengthy performance, indeed. In terms of its duration, the performance is only just over an hour, but the content…drags, for lack of a better word. Certainly comedic and coherent, the content is repetitive, overall. I understand the desire to depict the two men as nebulous, mucking around and never getting anything productive done, but this costs us valuable stage time that could be used to better develop a sense of plot and narrative [and Phoebe’s character, as I shall continue below] which I do feel is needed by this particular dramatic text, in fact.
As it stands, developments seem to come out of nowhere, such as Phoebe’s sudden crying or court order case. I should note here also that this latter is most peculiar to me, given that Matthew is the accused and yet has no idea that the case has been opened, and yet she still wins…most unrealistic. Again, I understand the idea behind making Phoebe a negligible, background character, receiving no attention from the men – and hence from us, enabling us perhaps to feel that we are joining in with the misogyny to some degree – but the execution does not do this justice.
The constant presence of a female character is effective in forcing us away from forgetting the reality that underpins this comedy, the reality of how the men’s behaviour would affect and be perceived by a woman. And it also cleverly allows for the depiction of two different intensities of misogyny: how men treat, speak to and behave around women; and how they act and speak together in a woman’s absence, unfiltered and unafraid to speak what is “really” on their minds.
However, Phoebe’s mere silent presence does not feel sufficient here. With Phoebe being the character who summarises and comments at the end upon all we have experienced throughout the performance, Phoebe has a vital function in extracting the sociopolitical messages of the text. We need to feel that she herself is important enough to listen to, for how an audience reacts and relates to the messages behind what Phoebe is saying is very different to how they react and relate to Phoebe specifically saying them. We need to feel that we are in agreement with the character of Phoebe, not the writer of Phoebe’s lines.
I shall elucidate. Paradoxically, we have grown to love the characters of Matt and Matthew and their behaviour. We need something to challenge our enjoyment of and complacency towards this. This is the purpose of Phoebe’s final speech as well as revealing to us the effects their misogyny has had on her. Through her speech, our enjoyment must be changed to guilt, despair and empathy; yet, we cannot empathise with a character with which we have no bond.
Psychologically, it is far too difficult to empathise with an enormous number of people – the entire female and female-identifying population, for instance – but to empathise with one singular character is easy, and so if we are made to empathise with Phoebe, we are better emotionally educated and informed through her final speech on how to empathise with real women in similar circumstances. This affect must be utilised, nay forced upon us. Increasing Phoebe’s presence in the narrative, we will be forced to see the misogyny we have thus far enjoyed through her eyes. In its current form, however, the dramatic text does not allow for us to empathise with Phoebe, for we have no idea who she is; instead, to agree with her speech, we rely solely on our own pre-existing and pre-established morality and opinions and our own lived/learned experiences, personal histories and understandings of misogyny. We only agree because we already feel the same way. This means that the dramatic text does not challenge anything, teach us anything, make us feel anything; it is simply a reiteration and confirmation of what we already believe. This must be readdressed.
Because Phoebe exists in the world of the play and can only be influenced by the events of the play and the other characters, having empathised with her and now hearing her final speech allows us to zero in solely on the content of the dramatic text. We are not so easily influenced, then, by external factors, our individual politics or ‘contradictory’ experiences. This is why a better incorporation of Phoebe’s character is so important.
Currently, it feels as though Phoebe is a negligible element of the play, that she is just another of the women Matt and Matthew criticise and prejudge. If she should be the one to finally educate them, they should themselves feel that she is important enough to listen to, too. At the moment, I see no reason as to why these men who constantly blame women’s emotions on PMS or general hysteria should see this final email as anything different.
I feel it was also a mistake to portray the video footage of the famous actor’s wife. This is too stylistically different from what we have seen thus far and disrupts what is otherwise a static setting and an unchanging set of profiles, i.e. we quickly become aware that the three performers have one role only, and so multi-roling is destabilising, however well characterisations are differentiated. The role change is simply too short-lived and is never seen again, meaning that this role change feels incredibly out of place. Furthermore, opinions on women should be more generalised in this dramatic text, I feel, and references to specific women should be limited to Phoebe alone. I write this because this dramatic text limits its narrative to office-based misogyny, and I believe these external references confuse this narrative, despite the fact that these characters are supposedly journalists. I would recommend that the characters perhaps dedicate their time to more publications like their one on women and menstruation or perhaps spread their actor-crazed attention across multiple Hollywood actors. Such a dedicated focus to the one actor develops its own subplot that, I am afraid, does not notably go anywhere or serve the overall plot in any substantial way, though I understand the concept behind it.
Whilst the comedy offered by the dramatic text is certainly effective, and whilst it is delivered wonderfully by Valentino and Bulchandani, the sheer amount of uninterrupted comedy means that the more serious scenes, like Matt’s masturbation scene, seem out of place, less resonant, less poignant. With Valentino and Bulchandani’s portrayals being principally caricaturistic, unrealistic, melodramatic, more work has to be done to remind us of the severity behind their misogynistic beliefs and behaviour. We are removed, through comedy, from this severity, and I would recommend more frequent moments of seriousness from the middle of the play onwards, to disrupt the comedic flow of the text and to reduce our distance from it. This scene would also be a good example of where our bond with Phoebe would be useful, given that walking in on Matt is something she actually mentions in her final speech as a principal reason she ‘sits crying on the bathroom floor’ every night. With some seriousness and more presence from Phoebe, we should be made to feel as uncomfortable as she does.
Without some seriousness, this masturbation scene, in particular, is easy to overlook — as incidents like this so often are in reality, it seems, for the very same reasons — but this is, I should hope, unintentional. After scenes like this, we should be made to feel a sense of discomfort as audience members, uncomfortable with what we have just witnessed, unsure of how to feel about this character that we have, ironically, grown rather fond of [hating?]. Any further attention we are forced to give him should feel unwanted, disconcerting. A summary: as I have written above, the over-reliance upon comedy is sometimes impeding. Thumb wars, for example, could be replaced with more meaningful content that progresses the narrative or increases its profundity.
Moving on. As for the decision to have women play the roles of Matt and Matthew, this was a very intelligent one. It highlights the discrepancies between the behaviours we associate readily with men but that appear strange on a woman and allow for a deliberate, condescending and irregular display of masculinity that would not be so apparent if the performers were, indeed, men. In doing so, the behaviour, actions and language that we would otherwise find offensive, misogynistic and uncomfortable are rendered ridiculous and made inviting, accessible. And, of course, this would benefit Phoebe’s final speech if it were better integrated into the text.
Finally, tech. The various lighting states are used effectively, particularly to differentiate what we are to consider as ‘live action’ from recorded footage (the interview, for example). However, there could be fewer. Lighting operation in general is rather poor, with states changing too quickly and before performers are ready. I should also note that the lighting design in the final scene is most inadequate, with Taylor-Jones left unlit and a dim spotlight on Valentino and Bulchandani where their reactions are nonexistent and meaningless to illuminate. Sound, however, is used immaculately and facilitates the performance well, particularly with ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ by The Ordinary Boys being played during transitions.
Personally, I must say that I rather enjoyed this performance, but my critical perspective and personal opinion are very different things. It is solely because of the reasons I have listed, which are significant and compromising, that I give the rating I do.