Saturday, June 4, 2016

'Off the King's Road' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 3rd June 2016

Oh my god, it's 'the Dude'! Jeff Bridges! Okay, well, he's not actually on stage (he appears via Skype). And okay, the Skype calls are pre-recorded video, but still, Jeff BridgesThis clever bit of technological gimmickry proves to be the best thing in Neil Koenigsberg’s Off the King's Road, a mildly diverting dramedy finding its way to London after a 2013 Off Broadway run.

Set in a townhouse hotel called 'Off the King's Road', we follow Californian Matt Browne (Michael Brandon) as recovers from the death of his wife. They were happiest on holiday in London, and so he's here half to focus on their best memories and half to begin the healing process. Aided by his psychologist (Jeff Bridges), he plans a visit to the Tate Modern, pops valium, inflates a blow-up doll, takes long walks in the park and revisits Ingmar Bergman's classic Wild Strawberries.

Surrounding him is; obsequious hotel clerk (Luke Pitman); a cat lady widow in the room down the hall (Cherie Lunghi); and Sheena (Diana Dimitrovici), a Russian sex worker in whose lap Matt finds a prized moment of peace.

The individual components of Off the King's Road are all serviceable enough, but the play as a whole never quite gels. From the get-go there's an obvious rift between the sincere emotional journey of the protagonist and the somewhat Fawlty Towers-ish goings on in the hotel. That rift only widens as things develop, leaving a gaggle of underwritten comedy archetypes on one side and a naturalistic hero on the other.

Most unfortunate is Dimitrovici's entirely unconvincing sex worker, though her problems are no fault of the actor. She's written as an experienced working gal with cards in phone boxes all over town, brusquely demanding cash before the action begins and constantly tapping her watch to remind her client that 'time is money'. Yet she acts with surprised incomprehension when Matt explains that he just wants to talk, or offers her a bracelet as a present. Granted, what I know about sex work comes from TV, film and the theatre, but it just feels wrong that Sheena wouldn't have seen behaviour like this a hundred times before.

On top of that, Sheena's arrival kicks off a distracting subplot that, as far as I can see, doesn't make sense. Soon after gifting her the bracelet, Matt has it returned to him via a brick tossed through his hotel window, apparently by Sheena's angry offstage pimp/jealous boyfriend(?) Rocco. I'm not a fan of nitpicking and plot holes, but while it's later established that Rocco knows which hotel Matt is staying at, how on earth could he know which window was his? On top of that, why would a pimp be upset at a client giving Sheena a present? If Rocco is a jealous boyfriend, then why is he dating a sex worker? As Rocco remains off-stage for the duration, we never know.

Stuff like that doesn't cripple a play, but it does distract from the largely competent central narrative of a man getting over his wife's death. Matt isn't a groundbreakingly complex character but Michael Brandon makes him a generally likeable and pleasant to be around. It's easy to feel a twinge of sympathy when you contrast the private moments in which he wrestles with his personal demons and the generally upbeat persona he presents to the rest of the world, especially when he confronts his own vulnerability towards the end of the play.

But it's Jeff Bridges that really makes things spark. These actors are all competent professionals, but Bridges is a straight-up genius and it shows. The three scenes in which Matt chats to him are easily the funniest, most human and just downright enjoyable moments in the whole play. It's cheating a bit to have an entirely pre-recorded stage performance, but as the illusion that Bridges' character is live on Skype is airtight, the play gets away with it.

Perhaps Off the King's Road is worth it if just to enjoy the novelty of (sort of) seeing Jeff Bridges on the London stage for a relative pittance. Aside from that this is an amiable enough play whose negatives are just about cancelled out by its positives. 


Off the King's Road is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 25th June. Tickets here.

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