Thursday, February 18, 2016

'A Steady Rain' at the Arcola Theatre, 17th February 2016

It's an urban nightmare. Pimps swarm the streets, prostitutes cower in condemned tenements, bullets freely zip through the air. There's even a cannibal serial killer on the loose. Welcome to A Steady Rain's Chicago

Navigating these murky waters are two cops on the edge, Denny (Vincent Regan) and Joey (David Schaal). The two form a classic good cop/bad cop duo: Denny is impulsive, violent and ego-driven while Joey is more thoughtful, intelligent and by the book.

Kicking off the story is Denny's altercation with a vicious pimp, who targets his family for retribution. A .44 Magnum round explodes his front window, sending shards of glass spiralling through his terrified family. His youngest, Shaun, gets it the worst, his head sliced open and arterial blood spilling across the room. Now he's in intensive care, possibly brain damaged. Denny vows revenge.

Tonally landing somewhere between The Wire, CSI and Bad Lieutenant, Keith Huff's (a former Mad Men writer) play feels like a binge through a glossy HBO cop drama. With just two actors on stage and minimal scenery, the broad dramatic conceit is that we're hearing both men's accounts of events to an Internal Affairs team. This effectively means we hear Joey's unexpurgated tales of Denny's violence, law-breaking and racism, then hear Denny casually explain things like "yeah, the guy had a gun tucked in his pants - what's a cop to do but shoot?"

From the get-go it's plain that A Steady Rain is knitted from a patchwork of cop/crime cliches. You've got the childhood friends in love with the same woman, the bent cop involved with a desperate hooker, an interfering police chief memorably named Dickerson ("The dick of dicks!"), the prying eyes of internal affairs, alcoholic loner cops, abused cop wives, gay cannibals and so on. But, crucially, it makes these cliches work.

What powers the piece is Nietzsche's famous quote: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.". Denny and Joey are not intrinsically bad men, yet their profession has slowly corrupted them over the years. Cool objectivity has morphed into overt racism, coupled with a belligerence grown from hard-bitten experience. 

In Denny's case, we watch as his appearance comes to reflect the rot inside, his corruption manifesting itself as gangrene and smeared blood. It's a neat, pithy commentary on the state of policing in the US, with the Chicago setting deeply relevant. Cops in the US have a nasty habit of executing unarmed black men and getting away scot-free, and A Steady Rain peels back the mind-set of a violent racist monster cop and explores what makes him tick. Granted, Huff's diagnosis is nothing that hasn't already been reached by umpteen other cop dramas. But he's on the mark.

Performatively, Regan and Schaal are both unfussily excellent. In the Arcola, the audience surrounds three sides of the stage, as well as peering down from a balcony. Both actors stalk the borders of the stage, shooting glares into the audience as they deliver the punchy dialogue. Occasionally we feel like we're sitting on a jury hearing a witness give evidence, the men practically pleading with us to understand the motivations behind their actions.

As the two are pushed to (and beyond) breaking point, the pair continually plumb fresh dramatic depths. Though Regan is a monster, there's deep tragedy in the rare moments in which he breaks: his guilt suffocating him. Joey finds himself torn between loyalty and love, coming at us with barely concealed self-loathing at his actions. They're as good as anybody I've seen lately - both actors clearly relishing their meaty roles.

A Steady Rain is riddled with cliches and flirts a little too hard with familiarity. Still, it's anchored by a pair of powerhouse performances by two actors who deploy their talents with ruthless efficiency. The minimalist staging only focusses the attention on them, creating an atmosphere you can cut with a knife. 

Perhaps the best observation I can make is that A Steady Rain is that rare brand of drama that gets a visceral reaction. As a particularly shocking detail was revealed, someone next to me muttered "holy fuck!" under their breath. They're on the mark. 


A Steady Rain is at the Arcola Theatre until 5th March. Tickets here.

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