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[Review:] REGRETXIT, Etcetera Theatre, London.

Regretxit is a campy, energised and unpredictable performance. It is most definitely a memorable experience but as a piece of theatre, it remains highly unsure of itself.

The story this play tells, that of Matthew (Matthew Cleverly) who falls in love with a swindling, immigrant heartbreaker who plays him for a green card, assets and money, is a clear and directional premise. However, the story unfolds within a disorderly array of cultures: queer culture, foreign culture, British culture, Welsh culture, etc., and all of these make for not only an ill communication of the narrative but also of themselves. Binding the narrative in these contrasting cultures causes it to lose its singular voice, and one starts to question what this play is actually about, the narrative seeming more as a device, a touchstone to lead to other, more important subjects. Is it really just a particularised depiction of situational queer love? Or is it a criticism of British politics and the immigration system? Or on the so-called nature of the immigrants themselves (which is most unfavourable)?

The problem, I believe, is rooted in this play’s propensity towards a particular mode: the use of stock characters. The performance becomes swamped with shallow, cliched and stereotypical caricatures: game show hosts, sock puppets, vogue dancers, etc. There are simply too many. The sheer amount of material, and the vapid way it is approached, means that none of it can be deeply addressed. In this performance, Cleverly gives too much attention and focus to unnecessary details and forgettable one-liners. This becomes a problem when the main narrative starts to suffer from it.

For example, the Teresa Mae sock puppet: it is humorous, it refreshes the mood of the performance, and it helps to contextualise Matthew and Anton’s relationship, but this sock puppet monologue is not essential, and neither, really, is this mood change. But it is quirky and could be useful. However, the problem comes with the duration of this cutaway. The scene gains a life of its own as Matthew is harassed by the sock puppet, and it goes on for so long that it feels like there is a separate plot going on, rather than a tool to contextualise the main narrative.

Where this use of cliched personae is not inherently a problem to this performance is when it drives it forward, adding texture and tone. For example, Cleverly’s portrayal of Anton as a virulent, hard-voiced, harsh, dominant Ukrainian man. This is a caricature that a [British] audience can quickly recognise; it gives us immediate information about his character and helps us to focus more on his position/influence in the story. This is how these stock characters should be used. However, Cleverly’s accent was very wobbly, teetering from Russian to German, and I have a rather serious issue with the subtextual influence of this character which this unstable portrayal exacerbates. But more on that later!

This use of stock characters is a major problem for this play, and this goes hand-in-hand with the play’s performance style which jitters between karaokes, presentations, soliloquies, poetry recitals… It lacks a clear and progressive sense of setting, tone and, most importantly, voice. Voice is utterly lost in this performance. We do not gain enough information on Matthew to deeply understand his character, his intentions, objectives and desires. We are not allowed to root for or empathise with Matthew, because everything is simply much too hectic, and why would his misfortune have any effect on us whatsoever when we know he'll be dancing to gay pop idols in a few minutes’ time, having the time of his life?

The need for repose, for reflection, to breathe is very overbearing in this play, exacerbated by Cleverly’s high-energy and physical performance. Cleverly races through the text, multiroling, jumping from performance style to performance style – there is simply too much going on to be able to digest the performance to its true potential.

Even the very set becomes inundated, swamped with throwaway props. The use of such props is comedic and playful; however, I feel their function in this performance is misunderstood by Cleverly. When Matthew clears the set, he speaks as though he is starting afresh and treats the props as souvenirs of the narrative, symbols, vignettes, objects of memory. They are treated as if they have earned a language of their own and speak directly of the story. This is not the case. The props are used predominantly during musical sequences as throwaways to draw attention to over-sentimentality. It is but a campy, self-contained and self-referential mode of storytelling, yet these props are ultimately treated as the story themselves.

I will now move on to the subtext of this performance. Matthew reveals to us very early on in the play that he did not vote during the Brexit referendum, that he had no concrete opinions on Brexit worth his vote. Compare this with the end of the performance where Cleverly is coaxing the audience to sing with him about how powerful post-Brexit Britain will be as a nation and how marvellous and yielding a notion Brexit is. Something has happened to cause this contrast, but what?

The only substantial subject in this performance is the idea of foreignness, conveyed by, amongst other features: recordings of news reports, the significance of immigrant-related acts, speeches by Teresa Mae, and, of course, the character of Anton. This latter is of paramount importance. Unrefined and heavily cliched, the character of Anton serves as a synecdoche for the immigrant, for the foreign man. Deliberately paired against Brexit’s effects on immigration, which are first quite astutely presented as unjust and cruel, Anton becomes a significant representation of the good-willed and hard-done-by immigrant and evidence against these unfair acts. However, when Anton is proven to be conniving, malicious and deceitful, the only positive reflection of the foreigner is erased; in its place, exotic getaways which become sites of destruction, pillaging, murder and violence. Matthew settles with Englishman Clive, a symbol of homosexual liberation – contrasting again with the gay-baiting, married and seemingly heterosexual Anton – and an honest, compassionate and generous lover, unlike his foreign predecessor.

I hope this exposure has made it clear that, whether it intends to be or not, this performance is highly racially and, moreover, xenophobically charged. It uses a very peculiar, though admittedly not illogical – and that is why it seems fair, conventional and realistic – act by a [fictional] foreigner to justify the effects of Brexit on immigration laws. With very little content, despite the abundance of material, there are few other conclusions to draw from this performance.

I am not sure if the intention was to make light of the inevitable, or to generate a sense of patriotism and pride for the irreversible, but a theatremaker needs to be hyperaware not just of the efficacy or success of each individual scene but of how all of these scenes come together and what message they convey in their assemblage. I rate this performance very lowly not only for its hectic and flavourless lack of coherency and style but also for the sociopolitical themes which emanate from it so naturally, acceptedly and readily.

“A terribly ill-conceived and undercooked performance, not only theatrically but politically.”


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