Saturday, January 16, 2016

'The Long Road South' at the King's Head Theatre, 15th January 2016

Though the stage is dominated by acid greens, floral pinks and blown-out yellows, there's only two colours that count in Paul Minx's The Long Road South: black and white. We're in Indiana, 1965, the very beating heart of suburbia. These are the dying gasps of Eisenhower's vision of America; the moment when the cultural dominance of the white nuclear family began its achingly slow retreat.

The story pits a dysfunctional Price family against two black servants desperate to make their way to Alabama to join the civil rights movement. The Prices comprise ulcer-riddled meatpacker Jake (Michael Brandon), his perma-soused depressive wife Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs) and their slutty teenage daughter Ivy (Lydea Perkins). Offstage is Ben, a child ominously confined an institution.

Squaring off against them are the sturdily noble and devout Andre (Cornelius MacCarthy) and his partner Grace (Krissi Bohn). Grace is passionate about the civil rights movement, perceiving it as an ongoing narrative in which she's determined to play a part. Her fierce class and racial consciousness bristle against her job as domestic servant to the Prices. 

All she wants to do is get the hell out of there and hit the road with Andre. But first there's the matter of their pay for the summer. But getting what's theres proves to be difficult, especially when the family begins to messily implode.

The Long Road South covers fairly well trodden ground in 1960s suburbian. Then again, this is fertile dramatic territory; a repressed land of stifled sexuality clad in ugly floral patterning. But unfortunately, the Price family are a pack of premoulded stereotypes. The performances are all relatively faultless, but it's difficult to get emotionally involved in what quickly prove to be clumsily defined caricatures.

Sadly, these problems extend to the heroic servants. The intelligent and forthright Grace should theoretically be a heroic character, yet suffers from a confusing backstory and has pretty much zero romantic chemistry with Andre. He's no great shakes either, a tangled mire of sub-Tennessee Williams cliches - a violent alcoholic redeemed through Christianity yet struggling with his innate violent tendenci...blah blah blah. You know how this one goes.

On top of this, there's a tonal inconsistency that mercilessly smothers nuance. In one scene we might be cringing our way through an absurdly cranked up portrayal of teenage sexuality, with Ivy flashing her arse all over the place at the nonplussed Andre. The next might be an impassioned statement on how dignity of the working man extends across racial boundaries. 

Any interesting observations on racial discrimination (Andre's child being taken into protection, police brutality, Grace's past homelessness) are steamrollered into oblivion by the Price family's cartoonish antics. Consequentially, though the play wants to show off its political consciousness, it's far too unfocused a piece of writing to have anything interesting to say.

Worse, the moments it does succeed are in broad comedy. By far the most entertaining character by far is Imogen Stubbs' reeling and dissolute alcoholic. Playing to the audience, she camply exclaims "I don't drink... I imbibe!" as she swooshes about, gradually defoliating a mint plant as she demolishes a bottle of rum. While she's undoubtedly fun, it's as if Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous has wandered into an otherwise serious play on racial politics. This makes the later moments where we're required to take her seriously a little hard to swallow, to say the least.

It's a disarticulated script, and as it rumbles towards its conclusion any sympathy for those involved gradually evaporates. Compounding that is a predictable narrative, developments appearing on the horizon and inexorably trundling their way towards us. 

The Long Road South isn't a complete disaster but it is mediocre as hell. Is it drama? Is it comedy? Who cares. It's over-cooked stodge either way. 


The Long Road South is at the King's Head Theatre until 30 January. Tickets here.

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