Monday, May 28, 2012

‘Infinite Riches’ directed by Shani Erez, Old Red Lion Theatre, 27th May 2012

(from left to right, Charlotte McKinney, Daniel Simpson, Zazie Smuts, Lesley Wilson)

How do you truly terrify a modern audience?  Vampires, zombies, ghosts, aliens – all of these have been tamed.  ‘Infinite Riches’ is a play that knows how to truly scare an audience – how to give them stomach-twisting, back-sweating, dry-mouthed terror. 

An unknown number flashes up on your phone, you answer it and…

“Excuse me Miss, there seems to be some kind of problem with your direct debit this month.”

This is the kind of fear that Catherine Harvey’s ‘Infinite Riches’ exploits.  It’s a sobering thought to those of us who consider our existences fairly comfortable, but are really only 2 or 3 missed paycheques away from being completely fucked.  ‘Infinite Riches’ is a modern morality play about the dangers of indebtedness, consumerism and greed.

The narrative is the downward spiral of an individual frantically fighting off creditors and seeking the validation in materialism.  As the play begins he is desperately seeking a way to pay off his credit card and utility bills.  He makes a Faustian deal with an unlikely loan shark – an elderly lady, but finds himself sucked into a world of skyrocketing interest and broken fingers.

The play begins with ‘Nan’ (Lesley Wilson), a mysterious punky, elderly woman telling us the story of Icarus.  She is who other characters revolve around, a foul-mouthed, charismatic woman with shades of Vivienne Westwood and Germaine Greer.  She generally sits in a wheelchair decorated with a skull motif, and the image of skulls and death seems to surround her.  She treats her wheelchair as a throne rather than as a nuisance, and tends to dominate every scene she’s in.  As the play goes on, there are repeated diabolical hints as to her true identity.  She tempts, she coerces – there is an unmistakable toughness and omniscience to her throughout the production.  Lesley Wilson does a great job in this role – there are two archetypes at work here, the eccentric older ‘cool’ grandmother, and the outwardly friendly, but secretly vicious loan shark.  She does a great job of balancing them both, and tends to get a lot of the best lines. 

Acting as a kind of lieutenant or saleswoman for Nan is her granddaughter, Julie (Zazie Smuts).  She is by far the most dynamic and intelligent character in the play, running rings around the poor couple she ensnares.  Smuts is great here, tormenting the other characters with a kind of impish glee.  Julie is the most overtly diabolical of characters, souring milk and withering plants with just her presence.  Her body language is taut and expressive, perching on the edge of chairs, wrapping herself around the bewildered Phil’ or cheerily threatening violence through a letterbox.  She has an aggressive, wiry sexuality, tempting, yet as clearly dangerous as a poison arrow frog. Her language is full of fascinating contradictions, she frequently uses “ Am I bothered, yeah?” modern vernacular, but will effortlessly slip into Latin or Greek.  She seems obsessed with etymology, wondering out loud what the root language of words like ‘skimped’ is (her guess at Norse seems to be accurate).  It’s a great character, simultaneously showing a vast knowledge and education, as well as a hard-edged modern sensibility.

On the other side of the equation we have the unsuspecting couple, Phil (Daniel Simpson) and Linda (Charlotte McKinney).

Phil is our protagonist, but a more pathetic and unlikable hero I haven’t seen in a long time.  We meet him sitting, sniffling and coughing on a park bench.  He is a truly feeble character, in cheap clothes, with flat, style-less greasy hair.  He is so deeply pitiful that even though his situation of debt and over-spending is familiar, it is hard not to feel contempt for him.  He works in a fairly undefined middle management job and seems to be dull enough to suit it well.  As the plot develops he is sucked into Nan and Julie’s world, borrowing a large sum of money from Nan and being seduced by Julie.  He seems almost wilfully stupid.  He repeatedly lies to his wife about his finances, doesn’t see anything particularly untoward about borrowing tens of thousands of pounds from a clearly hard as nails loan shark (even if she is an old woman), he skips his payments on this, causing more trouble.  Everything about him screams spinelessness, from his unkempt appearance to his stooped, submissive body language. As things get worse and worse for him, he becomes increasingly pathetic and desperate, and it is hard to conjure up much sympathy for him.

Joining Phil on the axis of uselessness is his wife, Linda.  She is slightly more sympathetic, but only because of her obliviousness to the situation she’s in.  She is portrayed as a somewhat woolly housewife, someone who cares for her houseplants too much, talking to them, getting frustrated if people treat them badly.  She’s a bit of a ditz, never fully knowing what’s going on.  It is intimated fairly early on that Phil and Linda are unable to conceive, which I suppose is why she has sublimated her maternal instincts into her plants.  Her biggest flaw is her consumerism.  She longs for material possessions, and it is implied that this is what has run up the couple’s debts.  Certainly Phil doesn’t seem to have much desire for expensive clothes and houseware.  Following the loan from Nan, the house becomes full of shopping bags as she gleefully gives in to every buying impulse she has.  It is not too hard to pity Linda, who just wants the kind of home designer lifestyle that blares from newspaper weekend supplements. 

Production wise this is a fairly small-scale production.  The Old Red Lion Theatre is above a pub, and seats around 50 people (although for the first half I was perched on a step rather than in a seat).  The scenery is more suggested than shown, for example in the initial scenes we know we are in the park because a piece of blue crepe paper and a rubber duck acts as a pond.  The difference between Nan’s chaotic house and Phil and Linda’s cosy domesticity is shown by lighting changes, and draping Halloween style netting over the furniture.  It’s effectively small scale, and considering the cast doubles up as the stage crew, quickly and efficiently put together scene to scene. 

I enjoyed the use of music to hint at the devilish themes, both the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and “Under my Thumb, and the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” are Satanic style tunes.  I also particularly enjoyed the use of Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ which was played repeatedly as a song of temptation by Julie.  The Greek chorus of call-centre jockeys politely but firmly asking for payment, using the clinical language of debt is also very well-realised, anyone who’s had bill collectors chasing them will feel a cold shiver of recognition.

As for the play itself, on a purely visceral level, it is entertaining and fast-paced.  All of the characters have various complexities and secrets that are teased out of them.  I was sitting in the front row, with the action taking place fight in front of my nose.  During the more threatening, violent scenes it was remarkably intense, while still remaining darkly comedic.  The circumstances faced by Phil are those which could easily befall any of us – sinking inexorably into the quicksand of unpaid debt.  It seems a little odd then, that such effort is made to make Phil and Linda such unsympathetic characters.  His responsibility for their downfall is never in question, and he doesn’t seem to take any actions which could reasonably extricate himself from his situation.  Possibly he is meant as an example of how not to behave, but it is somewhat remarkable that the audience’s sympathies end up with Nan and Julie – and they’re portrayed as the devil!  It may be that having a relatable character be exploited by these two would rob the play of some of its comedic nature – on some level we need to be able to laugh with Nan and Julie, but it puts the audience in some rather cruel company in making us find humour in this poor loser’s downfall.   Even the slight glimmer of hope at the end is cruelly stamped on in the closing lines.

It’s very much a play worth seeing, and in these credit-poor times, a relevant one to boot.  It’s got four taut, lively central performances and the small performance space lets the cast get right up in the audience’s face.  Though I do wonder that if, by spending our time enjoying this poor schmuck’s torture and downfall we are not sacrificing a bit of our own souls in return.  It’s always good to keep in mind that:

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

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