Thursday, June 4, 2015

'Stop! The Play' at Trafalgar Studios, 3rd June 2015

If you're even peripherally involved in theatre, Stop! The Play will be extraordinarily satisfying and absolutely hilarious. If you're not, it's only hilarious. Theatre attracts preening narcissists and bloated egos like shit attracts flies. Theatre is what happens when public adoration and the veneer of artistic integrity, entangles with limited means and time pressures - a minefield that can be lethally exhausting. 

Stop! The Play aims to show precisely how 'the worst play ever' sprang into being. That play, Banksy Ain't Gay, is a nonsensical tale of a couple who wake up one morning to discover that the modish guerilla artist has painted his latest work on the side of their house. The sudden media interest draws predatory characters from the woodwork, which in turn causes the couple to dramatically discover their homosexuality. It's a bone-headed bit of theatre peppered with atrocious similes, gratuitous sex, half-baked characters and hammy monologues.

But oh man is it ever familiar. I've seen some stinkers in my time; plays written to demonstrate that  the writer is the new enfant terrible of theatre. I've watched plays through my fingers, teeth gritted and butt aching; always wondering - how the hell did anyone ever think this was a good idea?! 

Well, that's what David Spicer's script uncovers. Before our eyes we watch as a worthy kitchen sink drama about a struggling artist gradually morphs into this pretentious psychodrama. We experience this primarily from the point of view of the cast and crew, suffering under daily, drastic rewrites. 

Leading man Hugh (Adam Riches) gets it worst, his character downgraded from monologuing, troubled hero to human scenery. Everyone else is shuffled like a deck of cards; ditzy ingenue Gemma (Hatty Preston), consummate professional Linda (Hannah Stokely), old ham Walter (James Woolley) and last minute 'urban' addition Kryston (Tosin Cole) wondering why he's even there. This bitchy rabble is held together by trustafarian arsehole director Evelyn (Ben Starr) and put-open, monkey-scratched stage manager Chrissie (Charlie Cameron).

In concert this gaggle of stage stereotypes confirms every nagging suspicion I ever had about what goes on backstage when cast and crew scent blood in the water. Everyone is out for themselves, either paranoid about their parts being reduced or focussed on their paycheque. Though everything is heightened to farce, it rings true. I've met many an actor - and I sympathise with Alfred Hitchcock when he recommended treating them like cattle. 

So I felt a certain cathartic smugness in watching them helplessly sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of humiliation. Even if you don't have a bone to pick with thesps, you're still going to enjoy Stop! The Play because, simply, it's very very funny. The script is packed with great one-liners, ably shored up by a cast for whom a simple narrowing of their eyes or confused sidewards glance is enough to elicit gales of laughter. It's rare that I've heard an audience enjoying themselves so much - various jokes tickling different sections of the crowd as if we're being conducted like an orchestra.

I'm loath to spoil any of the best gags, but I particularly loved Tosin Cole's painfully cliched American rapper character who sprinkles "naam sayn" entirely too liberally. Similar pleasures come in Adam Riches' throwing himself with gusto into a nonsensical monologue about a meaningless day and Hatty Preston going for her Oscar moment with a bizarre half-whispered, half-bellowed kneeling confession. And it'd be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful origami body language of Ben Starr.

Perhaps the only flaw on the comedy side is a reliance on torturous similes. Characters are described as entering "like a swan landing on its favourite millpond", "like a child lost in a supermarket" or "like a frightened gazelle on a waltzer". They're all basically good, but the repetition gets a tiny bit much, eventually feeling a touch like mad-libs. 

Somewhat more serious is the imbalance in quality between the first and second acts. The first act is downright hilarious - primarily due to the stressed out, paranoid cast worrying about opening night. This drains away a bit in the second, as during the play itself they have all apparently stopped giving a shit. I wonder whether the show would benefit from mirroring the writing process - showing us the finished play first, then flashing back to the rehearsals.

Quibbles aside, it's difficult to argue with a play that elicited so many belly laughs from the crowd. Both cast and audience appeared to be having an equally good time, it's an easy recommendation.


Stop! The Play is at Trafalgar Studios until 27th June. Tickets here.

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