Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: 'The Worst Was This' at the Hope Theatre, 10th November 2016

The Worst Was This feels like two plays have crashed headlong into one another. The resulting tangled wreckage is a strange beast: a gothic quasi-Elizabethan portmanteau of horror and historical intrigue that simmers in a cauldron of steampunk burlesque, homoerotic desire and self-referential commentary about the state of theatre.

Plotl A follows a young William Shakespeare (Ben Clifford) furtively passing off the plays of Christopher Marlowe (Robin Heller) as his own. After that famous Deptford bar fight Marlowe's considered dead, yet has secretly become a scarred recluse. Marlowe figures he can exploit Shakespeare's charisma and good looks to get his plays produced, and Shakespeare craves Marlowe's tutelage in order to become a better writer. 

Plot B is a kind of ersatz Sweeney Todd. Mad pub landlord Agatha (Sarah Barron) is an amateur necromancer dead set on reanimating corpses. They're supplied by lunkhead Bones (Mark Jeary), who takes receipt of whatever's left over from Agatha's experiments and turns it into delicious food for all and sundry. Agatha enjoys her work (though is a little discouraged by her lack of success, while Bones is having an ethical dilemma about whether it's right to murder innocent people.

The two stories never meet, despite them taking place in the same building at the same time. This makes for some seriously disjointed drama, neither plot benefiting from constantly switching focus to see what the other one's up to. 

It's clear that the Shakespeare/Marlowe story has had the most work put into it. Still, the whole 'did Shakespeare really write his own plays?' theorising is pretty played out, not to mention that the 'Marlovian' theory this play works on is pretty much discredited.

Then again, something not being true doesn't mean it can't be entertaining. Buuuuut, well, this ain't. Matte O'Brien's script is peppered with Shakespearian quotes and quasi iambic pentameter, but the references are unhappily crowbarred into place and the poetry is leaden (granted, much of that is intentional). There's just no real insight into either of the two playwrights or their work, just a vague command to 'feel' the emotions in a play rather than simply recite them.

(On a more personal bugbear: Christopher Marlowe is referred to throughout the play as 'Chris'. Call him 'Kit' dammit: a) it's actually what people called him and b) it sounds 100x cooler than 'Chris'.)

This leaves the necromantic publord to pick up the slack, which despite being simpler and broader, is much more fun. This is primarily down to Barron and Jeary, who ham it up as much as they can without descending into panto. This is where the majority of the laughs come (though the most amusing moment comes when a prop gets tangled in someone's costume), the two having genuine comic chemistry with each other and a willingness to go big.

The Worst Was This feels like a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. There's just no detectable creative direction or vision, just competing ideas struggling for attention. Each plot strand would benefit from separation from the other, probably better off being staged as two separate plays than awkwardly mashed into one another. 

On top of all that, it's a technically scrappy production, for example there's typos in the projected scene transitions (e.g "decrepid" for "decrepit"), not to mention an uninspiring set and iffy costuming. While I'm sure it was fun to Wild Goose Chase to devise and rehearse this, they seriously need a bit more discipline and attention to detail.

The Worst Was This isn't the worst, just not very good.


The Worst Was This is at the Hope Theatre until 26th November. Tickets here.

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