[Review:] STEVE, Seven Dials Playhouse, London.
There are certainly some peculiar stylistic decisions in this performance that are altogether illogical, and incongruous with the rest of the material we are presented, and most of these are towards the beginning, setting us up for something rather different than what follows as a fluid, unbroken and, most significantly, enclosed representation. For instance, our introduction from Esteban (Nico Conde), as sweet as it is, is both structurally terribly predictable and stylistically inconsistent in that it offers us direct audience interaction, something we see nowhere else throughout the rest of the play. That is other than Steven’s (David Ames) short-lived aside to the same effect, where he ‘reintroduces’ us, with several flippant remarks, to the other characters after announcing his partner’s affair. And then the decision to re-present this scene to us with little alteration…but for what reason? Even more peculiar in this scene is the indecision as to whether the other characters should be frozen or moving; the actors simply cannot come to a unanimous agreement on this. The rotating set, upon which I shall elaborate below; the topographical inconsistencies that see in the same scenes some performers enter from backstage and others through the entrance to the house; the odd and seemingly irrelevant references to Stephen Sondheim and his music; and the caricatural acting style…all of these together make for a rather chaotic and incoherent performance, despite the rather somewhat structure [not material] of the narrative itself.
Ignoring its staged version, the dramatic text itself holds great promise but is repetitive in its tone and content. Really, not much happens in this text, and great stage time is offered, instead, to long-winded conversations between the characters that seem to have no real or notable significance to the development of the plot and characters, other than to communicate their somewhat skeletal and unidimensional profiles. However, despite being a rather coherent text, regardless of its content’s oversimplicity, the principal issue is that its dialogue fails to replicate natural, especially conversational, speech, and this, in turn, affects how the actors portray it. Not a single character has an identifiable and unique manner of speaking, and the structure of each one’s speech is practically identical, hyperfocused on the bombastic and the satirical, the sassy, the sexual and the subversive. This is a problem. Whilst the intention behind this — if, indeed, it were a deliberate decision — may have been to create the sense of a collective identity, a shared bond, a unity, the effect is, rather, that all of the characters seem monotonal and undistinguished, i.e. disinteresting. This is especially notable given that we have such little access to the other characters, particularly Brian but even Stephen (Joe Aaron Reid). As each character lacks a certain and significant specificity — other than Carrie (Jane Russell) perhaps, with her illness, though even this is in danger of being stretched beyond its usefulness — or some fundamental crux to ground their identity and upon which their personalities can rely, there is very little to humanise these characters, and humanisation is important if our readings are to invoke feeling, empathy and a sense of having bonded with these ‘people’.
I would certainly emphasise that the most successful element of this performance is the development of Carrie’s storyline, however. Her presence and witty speech type are by far the most established and the most particularised, and such detail and thought have gone into both her writing but also, and mostly, Russell’s excellent characterisation. Whilst great time is dedicated to the development of Carrie and Steven’s relationship, the stagnancy we are offered elsewhere in this performance means that their interactions with one another are surely the most memorable aspect of this performance. In fact, their relationship and Carrie’s terminal illness constitute the only emotional elements we are made to truly care about to some degree. Personally, I would have actually preferred a play that dedicates its entirety to their friendship, for this reason, as Steven’s life and storyline is simply far too understated and uneventful insofar as the writing itself.
On to acting. I should clarify before starting this section that absolutely all performers perform in an overly caricatural manner, and this compromises credibility significantly and, of course, further intensely diminishes any potential emotional response from the audience. However, Russell and Ames remain sure of their characters and of their intents consistently throughout this performance. A few lines are delivered with questionable intonation from both sporadically, but, overall, great deliveries from these two performers. They have done excellent work on their characterisations, and it shows; their characters are immediately comprehensible and clear throughout. There is, however, a great sense of artificiality Russell’s portrayal of her character’s emotional breakdown. The abruptness of this is both conceived and handled well, but it is the further detailing from after the moment she lifts her head from her hands that Russell abandons any sense of truth. I would recommend this scene be reworked. Ames performs his character’s anger well, however, but remains rather one-note throughout his outbursts. Given how lengthy these outbursts are — I refer to the first, when he divulges his partner’s affair to us and the other characters, and to the last, where he ‘breaks down’ to Carrie, questioning his identity and circumstances — I would particularly recommend further inflections and tonal variation when his speeches become more bombastic, florid and verbose — not that these should be extreme or dramatic but certainly palpable indications of underlying emotion.
As for the rest of the cast, Conde’s delivery needs significant work in terms of both vocal and physical expressivity. His character is certainly legible, but Conde lacks a great degree of vigour and vitality, from his encumbered jazz hands as the fake emcee at the beginning of the performance to his inappropriate and unnaturalistic intonation throughout. On the topic of the latter, Esteban’s entrances serve as moments of great comic relief, breaking the tensions between the other characters, and if Conde’s intonation is not appropriate for these quick and punchy throwaway “hello”s and “what happened?”s, then the impact of this comedy is altogether eradicated. Reid remains completely unbelievable throughout the performance, unsure of his role and character intentions, lacking any particularisations in his characterisation whatsoever, insufficiently energised, and unsure of the meaning and emotions behind his lines. Admittedly, he does improve significantly in the final scene, however, but here, we see him exaggerating as opposed to performing his role — and this is ineffective, given that we are not made to understand this role of his ourselves, rather leaving us with the question: this is an exaggeration of what, exactly? On the topic of exaggeration, screaming and extreme gesticulations do not equate to the representation of an inebriated partygoer, as evidenced by Giles Cooper (playing Brian) in the final scenes of the play. Even for such caricatural representation, we see no struggling eyelids, no wobbling, no slurring of the words, just plain and unparticularised shouting. A most obnoxious display, and not one representative of his loud and cocky character, either. On a similar note, we have Michael Walters (playing Matt) who remains constantly overly expressive throughout, culminating in this final scene where he, too, suffers from overacting: superfluous vitality and vigour and his over-pronounced and artificial manner of delivery get in the way of his credibility. A not particularly seasoned cast, then, demonstrating great energy but not the ability to channel it efficiently and intelligently.
Ben Papworth performs in this performance as a pianist and proves himself to be most talented, playing with expert timing and precision. His inclusion into the performance is nonexistent, however, and, being our only true link to the late Steven Sondheim, to whom, again, this play is dedicated, his presence or, rather, his significance needs to be far better addressed. Even at the end of the performance, he receives no gesture from the performers as they take to their applause, which is most insensitive and discourteous if such an extravagant bowing, seeing each performer bow one by one and then together and all of them returning again for a second bow afterwards, has been organised. A great disservice. I would perhaps recommend also that Papworth find something with which to occupy himself when he is not required to play. He appears visibly bored and somewhat dejected, and this is both distracting and subtractive, though I cannot blame him for feeling removed both socially and emotionally from this performance.
Set (designed by Lee Newby and constructed by Gemstage) is intimate and successfully evocative both of the settings of the play and the relative lifestyles of the characters. Though transitions take far too long for such little displacements, with stagehands seeming unhurried and casual but to an irksome degree, as opposed to seeming cooly efficient, the versatility and transformation of this set have been wonderfully conceived and executed, allowing for us to feel transported from location to location very distinctly. I must say, however, that to have audience members sit along the sides of the stage is a most terrible and subtractive decision — perhaps this would be acceptable if the entire play were set in this restaurant and if such aforementioned metatheatrical techniques were kept constant, but this is not the case — and that the revolving stage, handled by the Revolving Stage Company, is entirely distracting and ill-conceived. Actors regularly seem unsure of their footing, intensifying the revolve’s presence, and its use has no significant purpose, other than to benefit visual and technological appeal — although, this latter is rather compromised by the lack of smoothness in its operation, seeing it jar and stagger often. I think, for example, to the end of the café scene, where, upon Esteban’s return, Steven asks him what he’ll be doing after he finishes his shift. To have the entire stage revolve simply to have a second’s worth of a glimpse at Esteban’s — a tertiary character — reaction…is simply ridiculous. This is without mentioning the topographical issues this stage element presents: sticking with this same example, for instance, Esteban first enters from backstage, behind the sofa; when the stage is now revolved, he enters from in front of it. We have very little visual cues in this set design as to the topography of these locations, and to confuse the directions from which Esteban enters, our only topographical indications, is a terrible decision.
Initially, the graphics in the frames along the three walls of the stage (video programming by Cowley) are congruous and additive, supplementing the set with detail and a sense of the characters’ lives, families, contexts and attachments. The decision to depict portraits of the characters along with their text message bubbles is also an effective idea, if a little on the nose, but I would urge Reid with reproach not to look at them as though he sees them like we do, for these are representations of the messages he receives on the mobile phone that he is holding in his hand and are not to be seen as real; it is to this mobile — and to his house phone — alone that he should be directing his attention. The cartoonistic designs that suddenly take to the screens — the repeating moving line animation of the cat, the string of fairylights, or, most peculiarly, the white line drawings superimposed upon the rather photorealistic depictions of a skyline — are most incongruous with the designs we have seen hitherto, confusing the aesthetic and mood of the play with declining seriousness and integrity.
There are certainly other aspects of this performance that rather irk me, like why the sun is depicted to be rising after Steven has just informed us that he ‘and Carrie’ were waiting for the sun to set together — perhaps this was to indicate that the former [and soon-to-be-again?] couple stay together all night, but this is not clear at all, if this is the case — or why the actors, particularly Russell, insist on sitting at the Stage-Left bar to deliver their first few lines before joining the others seated Centerstage. However, overall, this remains a legible and coherent performance. What surprises me most, however, is this fact that all of this is somehow meant to be dedicated to the late Stephen Sondheim. The obvious prevalence of the name Steven/-phen, combined with random references to only a few of Sondheim’s songs, but predominantly Into the Woods [the writer’s favourite?], and yet no significance or symbolism to any of these whatsoever. The characters do not ‘know’ him, represent him, respect him, and yet all randomly have this shared vocabulary about his music and lyrics. The characters show no conspicuous interest in musical theatre throughout — other than Matt’s [ironic here] remark that Brian does not know anything about it — let alone Sondheim; just an expressed interest in cabaret, if anything. A most peculiar factor.