Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: 'Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd' at The White Bears, 18th January 2017

It's fair to say that a lot of people are pretty pissed off at the populations of Bumfuck, USA right now. Okay sure, the last thirty years of globalisation have left them with no jobs, no money, no dignity and no future, but even that's no excuse to give an obviously nuts egomaniac control of the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth.

Well anyway, they only went and did it and now we've got to deal with it. I suppose we may as well try to empathise, if only to try and work out how to stop a cock up like this happening again. And so, Keith Stevenson's Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road takes us from leafy Kennington to West Virginia, described by the New Yorker as "the heart of Trump country". It's a farce set in a dilapidated motel populated by violent, drug-addicted weirdos and run by a man who prides himself in the breadth and depth of his racism.

Our window into this world is hapless former spork factory worker Mitch (Robert Moloney). Sacked from his job at the spork factory due to his uncontrollable palmar hyperhidrosis (very sweaty palms), dumped by his girlfriend and currently homeless and broke, Mitch is spiralling life's plughole. In desperation he scours wanted ads to find a roof over his head, which is how he meets J.D. (Keith Stevenson). 

J.D. is a big friendly bear of a man: looking a bit like a young Brian Blessed, greeting people with a friendly slap on the back, calling everyone his 'brother' and always ready to offering a helping hand to those in need. He's also a slobby, booze-addled bum, occupying a shithole motel room in exchange for fishing tampons out of blocked toilets and subsisting on a diet of Lee Marvin's (a can of Mountain Dew livened up a mini bottle of vodka and tuna mayo on Wonderbread. (A note, if you don't like the smell of room temperature tuna this play may not be for you).

Mitch, expecting J.D. to have a spare room, is horrified to find he'd be expected to share a bedroom with this weirdo redneck. Things don't improve when the other tenants of the motel bust through the door; from Nam-Vet omni-racist Flip (Michael Wade), trackie n' gold chain wearing New Jersey expat Tommy (Dan Hildebrand) to Marlene (Melanie Gray), strung out on meth and prone to histrionics.

On paper this sounds like a cruel piss-take of redneck caricatures. The golden rule of comedy is that you don't punch down, and there'd be few more things more stomach-churning than a roomful of snooty metropolitan, latte sippin', turtleneck wearing, Moleskine writing in theatre critics chortling at the misery of distant poor people. But Stevenson's characters quickly surprise: J.D. knows Latin and grew up in Italy, his gangsterish neighbour is a romantic poet and the frayed Marlene is a talented painter. The gang are even enthused about the prospect of a Noam Chomsky evening: a big deal around here.

These characters are the ingredients for a charming, gentle farce that manages to be heartwarming without being schmaltzy and surreal without being unbelievable. Buoyed by a consistently high standard of performance (and, at least to my ear, pitch perfect accents), it's easy to get emotionally tangled up with these characters and, at least a little bit, to care about their various ludicrous predicaments. Stevenson, performing his own character, is particularly loveable as J.D. - it's one thing for the other characters to say that he's the nicest guy around, it's quite another for the audience to accept it so readily and obviously.

Their basic reality is shored up by a precisely detailed motel room set by Simon Scullion. Every effort has been made to turn the White Bear's shiny new performance space into a run down roach motel - from the damp seeping through the ceiling, to the stained carpet, to the trash on the floor to the way the cupboard door never quite closes properly. 

So there's clever, funny writing, compelling performances and a great set - what's the flesh on those bones? It's here that the play comes a bit of a cropper, quickly feeling like the pilot episode for a sitcom. This feels like an introduction to these characters more than a fully rounded beginning, middle and end for them (borne out by the fact that the play has a couple of sequels). More specifically, the show reminded me quite of a lot of an episode of Trailer Park Boys, which has much the same balance of farce and character drama.

After 70 very funny minutes (incidentally, this passes the "five laugh" test about 10 minutes in), the play finishes on what feels like the start of the real drama. Being left hungry for more is no bad thing, but the characters are so solid that you're left craving proper dramatic resolutions for them. Oh well, let's hope White Bear stages Stevenson's sequels soon.


Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd is at The White Bear until 4th February. Tickets here.

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