Friday, June 6, 2014

'A Catered Affair' at The Eel Brook, 5th June 2014

A Catered Affair is an odd duck of a musical.  For one it's fiercely claustrophobic; the action taking place almost entirely within a run-down Bronx tenement inhabited by a small cast grappling with resolutely unglamorous domestic situations.  Even the music is largely utilitarian, devoid of catchy choruses and upbeat numbers - functioning more as a vehicle for emotion than as anything to hum along to.  Whereas musical theatre is generally a vehicle for fancy-free escapism, A Catered Affair shoots for social realism.  

Adapted from Richard Brooks' 1956 film of the same name (written by Gore Vidal), starring the inestimable Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis, this is a story of the postwar American working class and their struggle for middle-class respectability.  The space above The Eel Brook becomes a crummy New York room which we share with four members of the Hurley family: middle-aged parents Aggie and Tom (Maggie Robson and Howard Samuels), their daughter Janey (Aimee Gray) and Uncle Winston, Aggie's brother.  

The family spend their lives perched on the edge of a financial cliff, with Tom describing himself as "a man who finds dollars hard to come by". He drives a cab and scrabbles together enough money to save a few crumbs every month while keeping the family just above the breadline.  Further adding to their woes is the recent death of their son in the Korean War, the family collectively suppressing their grief for each other's sake.

Kicking off the events of the play is Janey's impulsive decision to marry Ralph, an upper-middle class academic. All Janey wants is a visit to the registry office with her immediate family in attendance, followed by an idyllic cross-country honeymoon.  Unfortunately everyone stickd their oar in on what they think a wedding should be and all too quickly the wedding plans balloon grotesquely.  As halls are hired, limousines are booked, gourmet food is ordered and hungry relatives begin crawl from the woodwork the costs mount ("why blow twenty years of savings on one party!?") and pressures both emotional and financial begin to mount on the family.

Maggie Robson and Aimee Gray
It's the kind of plot you'd be unsurprised to find cropping up on Coronation Street, and it's be commendable if only because of its clear-minded class consciousness.  The financial problems these characters face are all too easy for a modern audience to sympathise with.  Aggie and Tom suffer the problems of the 'Golden Generation', having weathered both the Great Depression and World War II.  Now, in the early 1950s things are starting to look up for America and these characters are desperate for their bite of a very affluent apple.

My favourite scene was a small one that most deftly and sensitively lays bare the consequences of urban poverty.  Janey asks her best friend to be her Maid of Honour, and she has to decline because she can't afford a dress.  Even if she could she'd have to also buy matching shoes and obviously her husband would have to attend, which would mean the rental of a tuxedo - more money.  Like a stone thrown into a pond the economic ramifications of decisions ripple outwards, straining the social fabric.  In frustration Janey comments "It's only money!".  It's testament to how well played this scene is that I actually cringed at the naivety and crassness of saying something like this to a woman for whom it's never only money.

All this political stuff chugs along in the background quite satisfyingly, and it's only when the material begins to deviate from this that problems begin to arise.  It's not so much that there's any obvious problems with the performances (though the 'Noo Yoik' accents are often a bit wobbly), rather that Fierstein's adaptation is slightly creakily constructed.  The emotional core of the play is the mirroring of the two central relationships, Tom and Aggie worried that their passionless marriage of convenience is a harbinger of what's to come for the deeply dippy teenage Janey and Ralph. 

David Anthony as Uncle Winston
Jammed into the middle of this is a neurotic gay uncle whose story feels largely extraneous.  Part of the problem is that in a story with a tight and admirable focus on characters monetary woes he's ambiguously wealthy one minute and relegated to sleeping on a sofa the next.  His main function appears to be to clown around on the periphery of scenes saying semi-outrageous things and throwing theatrical tantrums - a stark contrast to the buttoned-down realism of every other character.  This comes at the cost of attention to Janey's fiance Ralph, who deserves more than the cursory character development he gets.  He likes Janey and he wears glasses.  That's about it.

Still, there are some fantastic scenes here, most of them courtesy of Howard Samuel's quietly sensitive father/husband Tom, a man with a face like an well worn shoe who spends the entirety of the play looking like he's nursing a mean hangover  An obvious high point is the barnstorming I Stayed, a song which constantly threatens to tip over into melodrama but doesn't.  There's an argument that A Catered Affair would function better as a play rather than a musical, but the agonising sung/yelled/wept catharsis of I Stayed single-handedly puts paid to that.

Howard Samuels as Tom Hurley
In the confines of the space above The Eel Brook, this drama gains power purely from our proximity to it.  Sitting in the front row I felt less as if I was watching their lives through a lens and more that I was a fly on the wall, involved yet invisible.  A Catered Affair makes the most of the space, relying on us being able to spot the tics and grimaces across the character's faces - particularly in a fine bit of acting as Maggie Robson ecstatically dreams her perfect wedding.  It's not exactly a toe-tapping showstopper of a musical (ask me to whistle a tune from it and I'd come up short) - but its heart and sympathies lie in the right place.  A solid, compassioniate piece of theatre, but one which never quite reaches the exceptional.

A Catered Affair is produced by the London Theatre Workshop and performed at The Eel Brook, 65 New Kings Road, SW6 4SG

3 June – 20 June, 2014
20:00 – Tuesday to Saturday
16:00 – Saturday Matinees

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